Millions of young Indonesians eligible to vote, but will their voice count?

BenarNews staff
Millions of young Indonesians eligible to vote, but will their voice count? Students attend a public dialogue with presidential candidate Anies Baswedan during his campaign rally at Bina Bangsa University in Serang, Indonesia, Dec. 21, 2023.
[Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

Millions of young Indonesians including Aqilah Fida Liya Putri, a 20-year-old university student in Jakarta, will be eligible to vote for the first time in next month’s presidential and legislative elections. 

That’s one reason the Feb. 14 polls will mark a pivotal moment for Indonesia – for the first time, more than half the electorate is between 17 and 35 years old. Another is that the country will be getting a new leader after nearly a decade.

But while this demographic of millennials and Gen Z-ers is one that politicians have been wooing assiduously, experts say this voting bloc won’t wield any influence in shaping government policies after the general election. 

Additionally, while Aqilah’s generation has grown up in the digital era, with access to a wealth of information and opinions, that has not necessarily led to better awareness.

Being buried under an avalanche of social media noise can make choosing among a plethora of political parties and three presidential candidates more difficult. 

“I’m still undecided and want to see first what the candidates stand for,” Aqilah told BenarNews.

“The most important issues for me are the environment, education, and economy. The environment now is polluted, and that will affect our health negatively in the future,” 

The presidential race features Anies Baswedan, a former Jakarta governor and education minister; Prabowo Subianto, the defense minister who is a former army general; and Ganjar Pranowo, the ex-governor of Central Java province. The constitution  does not allow the two-term incumbent, President Joko “Jokowi" Widodo, to seek a third term.

Aqilah Fida Liya Putri, a 20-year-old university student who is going to be a first-time voter in next month’s Indonesian elections, speaks with BenarNews in this screengrab from a video interview in Jakarta, Jan. 12, 2023. [Ami Afriatni/BenarNews]

Another Jakarta student, Agri Melyareza, worries about what her future will be like after she graduates. 

“I’ll be graduating soon … employment and job opportunities are essential for me,” she told BenarNews.

Lince Oktaviani Nuboba, a student from Papua, the conflict-ridden and marginalized region in far-eastern Indonesia, gets most of her information about the candidates from TikTok, a popular video-sharing app. She does not read news online.

She favors presidential candidate Prabowo because she finds him “funny,” Lince told BenarNews. 

The 72-year-old minister has become something of a social media darling, thanks to his penchant for breaking out vigorous dance moves at various events.

As political researcher Dedi Kurnia Syah said, “Candidates who effectively engage Gen Z and millennials have a clear advantage.”

“That is why every candidate is campaigning on social media to win them over,” Dedi, the executive director of Indonesia Political Opinion (IPO), told BenarNews.

Student Eliab Yosef attends class at his university, in this screengrab from a video interview with BenarNews in Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia, Jan. 11, 2024. [Hadi Ahdiana/BenarNews]

While the more than 100 million young Indonesians are indeed a valuable vote bank, they are underrepresented in politics because they are not very active, experts said.

This is not always for a lack of trying. The political system in the world’s third-largest democracy – and one which is only 25 years old – is dominated by older leaders, experts add. 

A startling statistic illustrates this fact all too clearly, as Ella Prihatini, a political lecturer at Bina Nusantara University, pointed out in a paper last year: Only two of the 18 parties contesting the elections this year are led by people under the age of 40. 

Gerontocracy, which means a political system is dominated by leaders older than the majority of the population, is what this is called, Ella wrote in the paper published by Perth USAsia Centre. And it is the norm in many of Indonesia’s political parties.

Indonesia ranks third in Southeast Asia in the number of young members of parliament. But at close to 15%, its share is well below the world average of 18.44%, Ella’s paper said. This in turn inhibits young people’s political engagement.

Again, it isn’t for lack of trying that youth participation is low.

The paper notes that many young parliamentarians come from political families – half of legislators under 35, and 44% of women legislators have relatives in politics.   

Therefore, while anyone can participate in politics on the face of it, young Indonesians in reality have limited opportunities, noted Aisah Putri Budiatri, a researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).

Politics is an expensive vocation and campaigning requires a boatload of money, which is not something the average young person has easy access to, she said.

“This results in the parliament being dominated by incumbent politicians or those who have strong financial and social capital,” she told BenarNews 

“And in this context, [those people tend to be] members of the elite circle or political dynasties.”

Motorists drive past flags of political parties flags installed ahead of the general election along the street in Jakarta, Jan. 12, 2024. [Willy Kurniawan/Reuters]

Even with limited participation, some young people are very clear about what they want – or don’t want to see in a president.

For Papua student Eliab Yosef, what’s important is that no part of the country should be ignored by the winning candidate.

Eliab backs Prabowo and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of Jokowi. He hopes they will bring unity and national pride, and pay attention to the needs of Papua, especially in education.

“I hope that if they are elected as the president and vice-president of Indonesia, they will care for all the people of Indonesia, including the Papuans,” he told BenarNews. 

Wawan Mahathir Alimuddin, a student of Arab descent in Palu, Central Sulawesi, said he hoped the election would not divide the people, as he felt it did in 2019, when the incumbent Jokowi faced Prabowo for the second consecutive election. 

“I’m seeing more maturity and tolerance among different opinions this year,” he told BenarNews.

University students raise white sheets of paper during a protest after Indonesia passed a new criminal code that would ban sex outside marriage and cohabitation between unmarried couples, and insulting the president by expressing views counter to the national ideology, Jakarta, Dec. 15, 2022. [Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters]

Wawan said he would support any candidate who can realize the potential of Indonesia.

“We have abundant natural resources, but we need to improve the quality of our human resources. And please promote our rich culture to other countries,” he said.

“We have everything but please don’t let it be exploited by people who only want to line their pockets and impoverish the people,” he added.

Ultimately, though, candidates following through on their big promises is what really matters, said Nicole Trixie, another 20-year-old student in Jakarta. 

“Our concern as young people is how [the candidates] will translate their words into action. We want to see tangible actions that will benefit the younger generation who will follow in their footsteps,” she told BenarNews.

She is enthusiastic about the election, she said, because it is her first time voting.

“Our role is significant because we will be the ones picking up the baton,” she said.

“We will vote, and it’s essential we don’t abstain.”

Ami Afriatni and Pizaro Gozali Idrus in Jakarta, Hadi Ahdiana in Papua, Indonesia, and Taufan Bustan in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


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