Tech-savvy youth are fast becoming the key to Indonesian politics, as a massive surge in first-time voters and rapid smartphone 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.

According to Sony Subrata, a former campaign adviser to the Governor of Jakarta: “2014 will be the year to see how social media is used — and abused — for political agendas by various political parties and presidential candidates.”

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Some 44% 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,” said Professor David Hill of Murdoch University. “There has always been a special political role for youth in Indonesian society.”

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).

“Australians often see Indonesia as a traditional agricultural society, but nothing could be further from the truth,” added Hill, who sits on the board of the DFAT Australia-Indonesia Institute. “This is a highly technologically engaged electorate.”

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 leveraged influence of 500,000 Twitter followers, a trademark plaid shirt, a suite of interactive games and a One Direction cover 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 Subrata, who is also the director of Arwuda Indonesia, a leading social media agency. But he says Jokowi is not the only one. “The usually aloof Indonesian politicians are now taking social media very seriously.”

A number of high-profile Indonesian politicians are using personal blogs to communicate directly, including the Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono and State Secretary Yusril Ihza Mahendra.

“… newcomers are being blitzed by social media campaigns that seek to conceal shadows of the past from a young democracy.”

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 smartphones 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.

Mobile phone penetration in Indonesia is now 67.6%, 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 tailored their social media practices to user trends. The sheer volume of online discussions has emboldened Indonesian politics. “We have become more expressive in our opinions towards what is going on around us,” said 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,” said Hill. Chief among these figures is the controversial former general Prabowo Subianto, widely tipped to claim victory in next year’s presidential election.

The Jakarta Post reports Prabowo is “the most preferred presidential candidate according to the country’s avid social media users,” based on studies conducted by A study by the Indonesian Network Election Survey in April concluded Prabowo’s popularity had doubled since October 2012.

Those voting for the first time next year are too young to remember 1998, when Prabowo deployed military units on the streets of Jakarta to support violence against ethnic Chinese. 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 partly be determined by the ability of politicians to wield social media. For Australia, the campaign is likely to provide a lesson in social media campaigning.

*This article originally appeared on The Citizen, a new publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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