Luthfi T. Dzulfikar, Ella S. Prihatini and Muhammad Fajar – Millennials and Gen Z form more than half the population of Indonesia – the world's third-largest democracy.
Polling agency Indikator Politik predicts nearly 60% of eligible voters in 2024 will be younger than 40. That's a big increase from the 40% in the 2019 elections.
A survey of 1,200 young people aged 17-21 across the country released last March by the agency provides a glimpse of the demographic group's political preferences.
In Indikator Politik's poll, a number of political leaders emerged as potential presidential front-runners. They included Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo and West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil. Opposition party Gerindra and the ruling Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) led the list of political parties by a fairly wide margin.
We talked to two political scientists to understand more about young people's political preferences as Indonesia slowly gears up for the 2024 elections.
Gerindra, but not Prabowo
Among the names that led the poll for presidential candidate were regional leaders such as Anies Baswedan (15.2%) and Ganjar Pranowo (13.7%).
On the other hand, even though his party topped the survey, Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto – who unsuccessfully ran for president in the last two elections – trailed in fifth place with 9.5%.
In contrast to countries like the United States (US), Indonesia's political system and culture place a significant emphasis on figures and leaders rather than loyalty to a certain political party.
Muhammad Fajar, who studies political movements at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), suggests this attitude may be more evident among young people than the general population.
In several national polls that surveyed the general public, both Gerindra and Prabowo have been among the favourites in 2024. In Indikator Politik's survey of young people only the party was preferred.
A 2018 study by political scientists Dirk Tomsa at La Trobe University, Australia, and Charlotte Setijadi at Singapore Management University shows this person-over-party trend may be caused by an increase in "personality-centric" political activism initiated by young people within the last decade.
"Using the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial elections that involved [the now president] Jokowi and [former governor] Ahok as a starting point for the study, they observed the emergence of youth-led volunteering groups," said Fajar. "There seemed to be a new form of youth movement that gravitated towards figures rather than parties.
"These kinds of movements took over political party functions such as mass mobilisations and fundraising."
Aside from that, Fajar said young people may have grown weary of veteran political figures such as Prabowo, They may now be seeking candidates with good track records of public service instead of mere popularity.
"If we're to be honest about this, Prabowo has entered the political arena for a good amount of years, and he's already been on the presidential ticket in the last three elections," he said.
"Now, some may be giving a closer look at a potential candidate's track record. Anies has had programs such as Gerakan Indonesia Mengajar (the Indonesian Teaching Movement); maybe some young people see this as a positive legacy."
Discontent with the country's democratic quality?
In Indikator Politik's survey, young people's top two choices for political party were Gerindra (16%) and PDI-P (14.2%). Golkar – a party deeply rooted in Indonesia's authoritarian New Order era – trailed in a distant third, even though 43.8% of respondents did not answer.
Apart from the high number of abstainers, Binus University electoral scientist Ella Prihatini said these results might reflect young people's disapproval of a government that had done a poor job of maintaining the country's democratic traditions.
For instance, in the same survey, around 40% of young people felt Indonesia's democracy has declined over the past few years. This percentage is higher than the national average of 27.8%.
"Mathematically speaking, Golkar wasn't the top choice because perhaps it was still negatively perceived as a remnant of the New Order [...] The Democratic Party is still struggling with internal issues, and is not doing very well to manage it," Ella said.
Ella also noted a number of problems with other political parties.
"The National Democrats (Nasdem) is also very much affiliated with the current government. The National Awakening Party (PKB) isn't any different. Parties that have clearly affiliated with the ruling coalition since the beginning of the 2019 elections will all be 'punished' for making Indonesia less democratic," she said.
"Meanwhile, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has a political tradition that heavily focuses on cadets from their ranks, which might be a turn-off for young people. As a result, this may be why Gerindra has emerged as one of the few remaining choices."
Civil liberties under the spotlight
Regarding preferences on socio-political issues, Indikator Politik's survey shows a level of polarisation among Indonesia's youth in some aspects.
Young people were evenly divided when asked whether they objected to having a non-Muslim as a mayor, governor or president, with around 30% each for "yes" and "no" responses.
On the other hand, only 16.4% of young Muslims objected to non-Muslims building places of worship in their neighbourhood – far lower than the national average of 52%.
"We can see here that perhaps we don't have a complete picture of young people. The results may represent political preferences from two different camps, based along Indonesia's sharp political divide in the last few years," said Fajar.
However, in general, Fajar sees a significant increase in the attention given to issues relating to civil rights – from free speech to gender equality – particularly since the Reform Era in 1998.
"If we pay attention to the 2019 demonstrations that protested against the proposed changes to Indonesia's criminal code (RKUHP), the issues that emerged were related to civil rights. Although there were other issues related to the economy, the majority were issues that we've yet to hear as much during the early periods of the '98 movement," he said.
"For instance, there was also support for the proposed sexual violence eradication bill (RUU PKS) related to gender equality and others related to minority rights and racism. They seemed to be issues that were hard to imagine during the '98 movement and represent a significant improvement."
The majority of young people surveyed (57.3%), for example, supported proposals to revise the country's controversial Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law, which is often used to silence dissidents.
"There's a strong wave of support for the government to revise the law so that people are free to speak their minds – 60%, this is a serious number," said Ella.
"If the government wants to regain the political trust of its people, this is something to take note of."
A political force, or just another demographic?
Although the names that emerged in the above surveys were mostly young politicians, Fajar warned that it does not guarantee they will fight for young people's agendas if elected to office.
"What must continue to be debated is whether figures such as Anies or [tourism minister] Sandiaga – or even other politicians considered young – will actually represent the aspirations of young people," he said.
A 2020 study from the University of Melbourne in Australia, for instance, argued that the Indonesian government has so far mostly focused on demanding the country's young population become successful while ignoring the wide economic, social and political inequalities within that group.
According to Fajar, until young people have an influential and formal political power to push their agenda through the government, they will remain just another demographic or target constituent, the same as other groups such as women or blue-collar workers.
"The discourse or image currently being built that young people have a big role as agents of change or whatever – I see it as only a play by the elite to attract them as voters," said Fajar.
Ella says the government must address this in the coming years by catering better to the social, economic and political needs of young people to help prevent them from becoming apolitical.
"People detached from politics will most likely abstain from voting or even participate in discussions. We mustn't let the next generation become apolitical. What is the future of Indonesia if this is the case?"
[Luthfi T. Dzulfikar is an associate editor. Ella S. Prihatini is a lecturer of international relations, faculty of humanities, Binus University. Muhammad Fajar is a postdoctoral fellow, Universitas Gadjah Mada.]