Tech-savvy youth are fast becoming the new mandarins of Indonesian politics, as a massive surge in first-time voters and rapid smart phone take-up make for a potent political mix ahead of next year’s presidential election.
With Jakarta already the world’s most active “Twitter city” and 67 million Indonesians reaching voting age over the next year, social media looks set to play its biggest role yet in democratic elections anywhere in the world.
Politicians are now being forced to take notice of online trends, increasingly identifying young Indonesians’ love affair with social media as critical to their electoral chances.
“2014 will be the year to see how social media is used – and abused – for political agendas by various political parties and presidential candidates,” says Sony Subrata, a former campaign advisor to the Governor of Jakarta.
Indonesia is a mirror image of western democracies such as Australia where populations are ageing thanks to low fertility rates and increased life expectancy.
Instead, 44 per cent of Indonesia’s population is under the age of 25, guaranteeing a steady stream of new voters in the years ahead.
“Indonesia is a youth-orientated society,” says Professor David Hill, of Murdoch University. “There has always been a special political role for youth in Indonesian society.”
But like never before, technological dexterity is magnifying their political influence.
According to new research conducted by Semiocast Communications, Jakarta now produces more tweets per day than Tokyo, London, Manchester or New York.
Bandung, Indonesia’s third largest city is ranked sixth in the same study, beating Paris and Los Angeles despite having a population of only 2.4 million people, roughly half that of Melbourne or Seattle.
The statistics challenge the notion of Indonesia as little more than Bali beaches or a hotbed of radical Islam.
“Australians often see Indonesia as a traditional agricultural society, but nothing could be further from the truth,” adds Dr Hill, who also sits on the board of the DFAT Australia-Indonesia Institute.
“This is a highly technologically-engaged electorate and there’s a lot that Australian political parties could learn from their Indonesian counterparts.”
The election of Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo as the Governor of Jakarta last September heralded the immense political power of social media in Indonesia and remains a template for future campaigns the world over.
Jokowi is a former cabinet-maker from Solo and a populist politician, who through the the leveraged influence of 500,000 Twitter followers, a trademark plaid shirt, and a suite of interactive games and One Direction covers that went viral is now astonishingly popular and known colloquially as “Indonesia’s Obama”.
“Jokowi was the first politician in Indonesia to truly understand the power of social media,” said Mr Subrata, who is also the director of Arwuda Indonesia, a leading social media agency.
But Mr Subrata believes that the Governor is no longer a lone example. “The usually aloof Indonesian politicians are now taking social media very seriously.”
A number of high-profile Indonesian politicians are also using personal blogs to communicate directly with their electorates, including the Defence Minister Iuwono Suarsono and State Secretary Yusril Izha Mahendra.
Just five years ago these forms of online communications were rare, given low Internet penetration and restricted access to desktop computers.
But the turnaround has been dramatic: today, thanks to new technologies and increased market competition, more Indonesians own smart phones than hold bank accounts.
The consumerism of the nation’s booming middle class has created the fourth biggest market for mobile phones in the world, outranked only by China, the US and India, whose populations all exceed that of Indonesia.
The mobile phone penetration rate in Indonesia is now 67.6 per cent, with around half of these users accessing the Internet through their phones.
By 2015, there are expected to be more active SIM cards in Indonesia than people, according to a Boston Consulting Group study.
In response to Indonesia’s continual election cycle, campaign managers have already tailored their social media practices to user trends. “Mobile technologies have become an essential part of political lobbying, political positioning and political engagement in Indonesia,” says Dr Hill.
Shannon Smith, the managing director at Icon International Communications, believes that social media use is also shaped by Indonesian culture. “Indonesians are really quick to take up technology and that’s very apparent in the last couple of years.
“Peak times of usage for Twitter are between 4.30 and 6.30 every evening because everyone is stuck in Jakarta’s infamous traffic jams.
And unlike Australia, social media use remains high during the weekend with Thursday and Sunday being the most active days for Twitter.
The sheer volume of online discussions has also emboldened Indonesian politics.
“We have become more expressive in our opinions towards what is going on around us,“ said Mr Subrata. “We have also become more open in discussing political matters or government policies.”
But the popularity of social media in Indonesia does not automatically translate to democratic transparency or accountability.
With the fight for the youth vote in 2014 being waged online, social media is presenting new opportunities for the old hands of Indonesian politics to recast their image.
“Many absolutely discredited and corrupt figures from the Suharto regime have re-emerged and are now attempting to shed their skin, change their stripes, and present themselves as defenders of the peasants and working class, ” Dr Hill observes.
Chief among these figures is the controversial former general Prabowo Subianto, who is widely tipped to claim victory in next year’s Presidential election.
The Jakarta Post now reports that Prabowo is “the most preferred presidential candidate, according to the country’s avid social media users,” based on studies conducted by politicawave.com. A further study conducted by the Indonesian Network Election Survey in April concluded that Prabowo’s popularity had
has doubled since October 2012.
Those voting for the first time next year are too young to remember 1998, when General Prabowo deployed military units on the streets of Jakarta to support the violence against ethnic Chinese. That same year, forces led by Prabowo kidnapped and tortured nine democracy activists in East Timor.
But the newcomers are being blitzed by social media campaigns that seek to conceal shadows of the past from a young democracy.
With the Presidential election still a year away, the outcome will be determined by the ability of politicians like Prabowo to wield social media to their advantage.
For Australia, the campaign is likely to provide a lesson in social media campaigning as much as the result will offer a pointer to future relations with its near neighbour.