Standing up to be counted: The millennial election candidates looking to shake up Indonesian politics
Millennial candidates seeking to be elected into Indonesia’s House of Representatives have gained a massive following on social media and are looking to turn that following into success at the upcoming election.
JAKARTA: Rian Ernest Tanudjaja says he’s just a “regular guy”.
“I just ordered my dinner through Go-Jek while taking care of my child. I don’t have any personal assistant to do all this,” he told CNA in a recent interview.
But away from the daily routine of looking after his one-month-old daughter and wondering what to have for dinner, Rian is not your average millennial: He’s standing as a candidate in this month’s Indonesian elections, where he hopes to be voted into the House of Representatives (DPR).
And the issue which has pushed this 31-year-old towards politics? Corruption.
“In Indonesian politics, either you are with corruption or you fight corruption. There’s no middle way,” he said. “And my stance is to fight against corruption.”
Rian is one of more than 1,500 candidates aged between 21 and 40 who are hoping to be voted into the DPR in the elections on Apr 17, which will also see the office of president contested.
Some of these relatively young candidates have been politically aware since childhood and are keen to challenge the established political hierarchy in their attempt to effect change.
Rian’s journey to become a politician started while growing up in a lower-middle income family, where instead of playing with toys, he spent most of his time reading about cases of corruption and dysfunctional government in current affairs magazines.
As he moved into adulthood, he became a corporate lawyer, but in between jobs he has spent a year as an elementary school teacher on the remote island of Rote, where he had to “draw water from a well to bathe”, and four months with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s transition team tasked to set up a new government after he won the presidential election in 2014.
He quit his lawyer job in 2015 and took a pay cut to become a legal aide to former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok.
“I didn’t see any progress in the government, and I had seen enough of the existing political actors,” said Rian. “So I decided I had to do it myself.”
WOOING MILLENNIAL VOTERS
Some analysts believe that millennial candidates like Rian could have an advantage in wooing voters in the same age range - 40 and below - who account for about 53.8 per cent of the electorate.
“Millennial candidates may attract millennial voters because of their cultural affinity as well as sharing the same generational aspirations,” said Dr Budi Irawanto, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “As a result, there are less barriers of communication for the millennial candidates to reach out to their electorate and explain their programmes.”
The most popular legislative candidate, according to Dr Irawanto, is Tsamara Amany Alatas who - like Rian - had her first public office experience at the city hall, where she was an intern with the governor.
“The internship at the city hall was the turning point for me, from someone who just wanted to be an observer in politics to someone who wanted to be a political actor,” she told CNA. “Jokowi and Ahok inspired me the most. They were not a part of any political dynasty. They are just common people and they’ve done good things.”
Dr Irawanto cited data showing the 22-year-old, who graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in communications, having 31.6 per cent "electability", “perhaps due to her strong presence on social media, her intensive campaigns at the grassroots level and her freshness as a young politician”.
Both Rian and Tsamara have more than 200,000 followers on Facebook - more than many other candidates, including among those who have held political posts. Speaker of the House Bambang Soesatyo, for example, has fewer than 30,000 followers, while the official DPR page has around 175,000 followers.
The Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), which sponsored Rian and Tsamara’s candidacies, has focused on attracting young people through social media, earning them the nickname “millennials party”.
Said Tsamara: “It's different in PSI. In the old parties or the big parties you can have no influence, and you are only a subject of the reigning dynasty in the political party.”
But the jury is still out on whether their online following will translate into votes, Dr Irawanto noted.
“The massive number of followers is not indicative of real supporters since the followers may be bots or buzzers with multiple social media accounts,” he said.
DEALING WITH ‘HATERS’, GOING BEYOND SOCIAL MEDIA
Beneath their veneer of popularity, the candidates also have to deal with online “haters”, but a 27-year-old candidate standing for election in an East Java district, Lathifa Marina Al Anshori, said she is not bothered by it.
“I have haters but I also have people who love me. I just have to make better decisions in terms of engaging with different people,” she said in an interview with CNA. “That’s life.”
At age 19, Lathifa became a war journalist while studying at the University of Cairo. She covered the Arab Spring and witnessed first-hand the bloodbath that was spreading across the Middle East. But amid the violence, she still saw a lot of good in individuals who protected others and cared for the casualties.
“You see how cruel people are, but you see the good heart in people as well,” said the National Democrat (Nasdem) party candidate, adding that being a journalist can be quite similar to being a politician. “When you’re a journalist, you tell stories, you tell the truth. When you’re a politician, you have to convince people of your ideas. In both cases, you are facing people.”
This is the second time Lathifa is running for election after failing to get into the DPR five years ago, despite being a popular young candidate.
Dr Max Lane, visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said that relying on the so-called millennial votes alone will not be enough.
“The term ‘millennials’ is used in Indonesia to refer to the young urban professionals or graduates in the big cities,” he said. “They are a small voting bloc - their votes are of not much significance.”
He added: “Actual millenials are mainly the urban poor and workers, and village workers and farmers. I doubt that they relate at all with the ‘millennials’ talked about in the media. Who knows how their vote will divide up?”
Dr Irawanto said rural millennials may stick with their extended family’s choice of party or candidate due to lack of access to independent information, as opposed to urban millennials who are connected to the Internet and social media - that is if they vote at all.
“Of course, there are a sizeable number of millennials who choose to abstain because they are disappointed with the quality of political campaign and the competency of the candidates,” noted Dr Irawanto.
Far from just relying on social media, 25-year-old Puteri Anetta Komarudin has been campaigning 14 hours a day, six days a week in the past eight months. The Functional Groups (Golkar) party candidate spoke to CNA while taking a day off from campaigning as she was recovering from flu.
“I have no life basically,” said Puteri in a raspy voice. Unlike Rian and Tsamara, whose electoral districts are within urban Jakarta, Puteri is running in a West Java district about six times the size of Singapore.
“But I actually really enjoy it. The more you see how people live in those areas - you become more grateful of what you have and more eager to help them get out of those conditions,” she said. “It’s our job as people who have higher education to give them a better living.”
MERITOCRACY AND PRAGMATISM NEEDED
As a child, Puteri often accompanied her father, former Speaker of the House Ade Komarudin, at grassroots activities in his constituency - the same one she is contesting in now.
“I saw him helping a lot of people. So I grew up realising that life is much more than just thinking of your self or your own benefit,” Puteri said, although having her father’s name, she added, has put a burden on her.
“Whatever I do, whichever field I’m in, I’ll always be associated with my father. I have to work 100 times as hard to prove that I am not dumb,” she said. “A lot of people here say that government officials’ children are useless; they capitalise on their family’s name. I have to deal with that since I was born.”
Practices of nepotism - or the perception of it - is why, Rian said, Indonesia needs a meritocratic system and a pragmatic approach to policy-making.
“For several decades, public positions are gained through networking, referrals and under-the-table arrangements,” he said. “So with a rubbish system, you get rubbish people.
“I’ve seen a lot of politicians and bureaucrats speak only on the basis of ideology and philosophy; it didn’t get us anywhere. We are just stuck with nonsense debates,” he said. “So we have to be more pragmatic and realistic.”
But will millennial candidates become viable alternatives to the incumbents on the voting ballots?
Dr Irawanto said they may attract voters with their image of being “clean (not corrupt), fresh and having many ideas for change”.
“However, for some, their lack of experience in politics may create difficulties for millennial candidates to convince the general voters that they are capable of dealing with political matters, and won’t be contaminated by bad practices in the political world,” he added.
Rian, however, is positive that it is only a matter of time.
“At the end of the day, like it or not, millennials will rule the public office in this country - and that is good.”