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Why identity polarisation mattered less in Indonesia's 2024 presidential election

Fulcrum - May 8, 2024

A'an Suryana – The absence of identity politics in Indonesia's February presidential polls points to the recognition that this factor can be a double-edged sword, especially when wooing a younger electorate that is savvy on social media and seemingly less susceptible to manipulation.

Identity polarisation, which can be defined as the division of people based on social, religious, or political identity 'fault-lines', was a distinct feature of Indonesia's 2014 and 2019 presidential elections (PE). For both PEs, Indonesians were socially and politically divided into groups which supported Joko Widodo (Jokowi) against supporters of his rival, Prabowo Subianto. People were divided along social and political identity lines: Muslims versus non-Muslims, and Muslim secular-nationalists versus pious-militant Muslims. Widodo, who won both times, largely obtained strong support from non-Muslims and secular or moderate Muslims, while the majority of Prabowo's supporters were pious-militant Muslims.

This split brought much concern to the country's leaders and people because identity polarisation triggered social tension. Anecdotally, some people no longer spoke to their friends or even their relatives after they vigorously supported opposing candidates. On social media, rival supporters attacked supporters of the other presidential candidate. This was the result of the negative or "black" campaigns (kampanye hitam) used by Prabowo's camp portraying Widodo as, among other things, anti-Islam and claiming he was of Chinese Indonesian descent, while Widodo's supporters claimed that Prabowo was anti-Chinese Indonesian or racist.

In the lead-up to PE2024, many analysts and political figures expressed concern that identity polarisation would occur again. Fortunately, it did not happen. Few media or online hoaxes aiming to incite identity polarisation occurred. Religious polarisation in certain provinces was significantly reduced. Why was PE2024 less affected by identity polarisation?

Several factors contributed to this phenomenon. The most eminent factor was the presidential race format. Unlike in 2014 and 2019, which were two-horse races, PE2024 was a three-horse race. This made it difficult for campaign teams, which included social media 'buzzers', to conduct black campaigns targeting one candidate lest it benefited the other rival and not their candidate. (Editor's note: A 'buzzer' or pendengung is someone who attempts to influence people's opinions on politics online, including targeting individuals or groups with negative comments on their social media profile pages.)

As a result, the campaign teams tended to polish the image of their preferred candidate pair or to promote their policy programmes. Prabowo's team focused on making their 72-year-old candidate look youthful through artificial intelligence-generated animation on posters and billboards and reinvented his image to be a cuddly, lovable grandpa through his "gemoy" dance. The Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar team focused their campaign on promoting the tagline "Perubahan" (change), while Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD aimed to persuade people that Ganjar could deliver quick results, using the tagline "Satset" (meaning Ganjar is a doer or man of action, and a down-to-earth leader).

Tacit agreement among political leaders was crucial to prevent the campaign teams from abusing political identity issues. Prior to and during the PE2024 campaign, Ganjar asked his campaign team not to resort to hoaxes or political identity issues because it would damage democracy, arguing "democracy should be fun". Media magnate and chair of the National Democrat (NasDem) Party Surya Paloh even quipped that Indonesia should skip the election if it resulted in a divided nation. This agreement prevented the three campaign teams, including their social media buzzers and influencers, from abusing identity politics.

In addition, the manipulation of political identity issues was not effective because many youngsters from the Millennial generation (born between 1980 and 1996) and Gen Z cohort (born between 1997 and 2012), who made up about 56 per cent of Indonesia's voters, are literate social media users and digital natives (in the latter group's case). The COVID-19 pandemic sharpened their social media literacy. Shafiq Pontoh, a social media practitioner, argues that the pandemic restrained people, including Indonesia's Millennials and Gen Z, from making personal (in-person) social interactions, resulting in their extensive use of the internet, including social media. People, especially youth, were forced to use technology for work or social interactions, which made them accustomed to checking and re-checking information presented online. This habit might have prevented them from being the victims of hoaxes or other black campaigns during PE2024.

The last factor is that all three pairs of candidates had an Islamic identity or strong Islamic credentials, making religious identity a less effective tool for attacking any candidate. For example, many activists of the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's biggest Muslim organisation, served as campaign team members for each candidate pair. This meant their supporters could not use their NU identity to alienate other NU elements while campaigning. Prabowo and Muhaimin, for instance, each had influence among different supporting factions.

Nonetheless, the three campaign teams still used identity politics but not as heavily as in the two previous PEs. Instead, they used it to boost their candidates' Islamic credentials. One clear example was how two of the candidates – Anies and Ganjar – performed the minor haj pilgrimage before their election campaigns or how Prabowo publicly prayed in mosques and visited key religious leaders during campaigning.

All three campaign teams used strategies to alienate potential supporters from their preferred candidates, including highlighting the eventual winner's alleged past human rights abuses and criticisms of the other two candidates' performances as governors. However, in PE2024, the exploitation of identity politics was not a major feature.

[A'an Suryana is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and is a lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.]

Source: https://fulcrum.sg/why-identity-polarisation-mattered-less-in-indonesias-2024-presidential-election