Elections 2024

Former general turned social media darling leads in elections in Indonesia

A combination of a savvy social media team, a high increase of young, social media-dependent voters and a successful rebranding seem to be the right formula for former Suharto-era general Prabowo who stands to win the presidency in the world’s third largest democracy. 

When more than 200 million people cast their ballots on Wednesday, 14 February, in the world’s biggest single-day election, there is a high likelihood that the next president of Indonesia will be 72-year-old Prabowo Subianto. From an outsider perspective this seems like a controversial choice. Prabowo, a former military general during the Suharto era and incumbent defence minister, has a series of scandals attached to his name that include allegations of kidnapping and torture of activists in the 1990s and human rights abuses in Papua and East Timor. But a successful rebranding has him leading the polls. The former hot-headed general is now portrayed as a “gemoy”, or cute grandpa, that adorably tries to accommodate the younger generations by performing TikTok dances on social media.

And there is good reason behind this strategy. More than half of the registered voters in Indonesia are aged between 17 and 40 – and social media is their main platform for news, communication and entertainment. According to the latest figures from We Are Social, social media users in Indonesia spent on average 3 hours and 11 minutes daily on social media everyday – well above the worldwide average of 2 hours and 23 minutes.

Prabowo has clearly embraced his new persona, and posters with cute cartoon versions of him and his running mate are hanging all over Indonesia. His choice of running mate is also somewhat controversial. The candidate for vice president is none other than the 36-year-old eldest son of current president Joko Widodo – Prabowo’s former rival in past elections. Gibran Rakabuming has very limited experience with politics, and it even required a court ruling to ensure his ability to run for office as the election law has a minimum age requirement of 40 for presidential and vice-presidential candidates. But that seemed like a small formality and the running team has ensured full support from sitting President Jokowi. They therefore go on to the election with a clear mission to continue the work of the Jokowi administration – which includes the relocation of Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to the east coast of the island of Borneo.

Human rights activists and independent media have frantically worked to raise alarm and remind particularly young voters about the bleak past of their preferred presidential candidate. But it has proven tricky in a country where certain parts of history are not taught in schools, big media corporations are captured by political and economic interests and media literacy levels are low. Local independent media outlets are however beginning to join forces in an effort to withstand the pressure in an increasing difficult media market. Every year, a local media summit (supported and co-organised by IMS) brings together smaller media outlets from across the country to discuss media business viability, media operations and new approaches to engaging audiences.

In addition, IMS works strategically to assist local media with doing what they do best: producing quality content relevant for people in Indonesia. This means helping them to identify ways to optimise their operations, strengthening their abilities to report on relevant topics such as climate change and using the affordances of digital technologies to reach and engage audiences. And the challenges will not end with the elections. Should Prabowo win – as expected – there will be a need for checks and balances and continued scrutiny of the administration. New tools and approaches will have to be learned to rise above the endless amount of carefully curated social media content and provide audiences with needed facts and information. All to ensure that the cute grandpa is held to account and deliver on his many promises to the Indonesian population.