Polls won’t open in Indonesia’s mammoth presidential election until February next year, but the battlelines are firmly drawn. Former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan will face off with the popular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) candidate Ganjar Pranowo. And for a third time, Prabowo Subianto is again putting himself in the running for the top job, having missed out in 2014 and 2019.
Next year is shaping up differently. With the Joko Widodo juggernaut out of the race after completing his two-term limit, Prabowo’s enormous blocs of support in the previous two votes become very valuable. Tens of millions of first-time voters have begun thinking about who they’ll cast their votes for. In a three-way race, things are looking good for Prabowo.
Would-be voters and election watchers point to an Instagram post that appeared on the candidate’s feed in early May demonstrating his shifting brand.
Polling conducted in May for media outlet Kompas found 32.7% of respondents between 17 and 26 years supported Prabowo, well ahead of Ganjar at 24.5%. The gap between the two shortened among millennials in the 27-39 age bracket, but Prabowo still led with 23.9% to Ganjar’s 23.1%. The survey reported a margin of error of 2.83%.
But why Prabowo, and why now? Would-be voters and election watchers point to an Instagram post that appeared on the candidate’s feed in early May demonstrating his shifting brand. Prabowo is unusually casual in a white Gerindra Party-branded hoodie and wearing a facial expression approximating a smile. He stands in front of one of those spectacular views so commonly found in Indonesia that it is not possible to identify. Among the top liked comments that the post has racked up within the month, two stand out from the run-of-the-mill messages in support seen on posts for all candidates.
Prabowo is “ganteng”, or handsome, and “gemes” – an Indonesian word often translated to “cute” but more evocative of the irresistible sensation of squeezing the cheeks of a young child or picking up a puppy and hugging it, for example.
It’s a world away from the hard-talking military general reputation Prabowo has happily cultivated and maintained for decades, to the point he was banned from entry to the United States for a time over allegations of human rights abuses. That’s the image he ran on for president in 2014 and again in 2019 and it is still firmly his default, serving as Defence Minister in the current cabinet. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend, he controversially called for peace “negotiations” between Ukraine and Russia in what he characterised as “disputed territories”. One message to the world and another to domestic audiences is hardly a unique phenomenon, but the marked shift in Prabowo’s domestic image in recent months is compelling and appears to be paying off for him.
Millennial and Gen Z voters will formally become the dominant voting bloc commanding nearly 60% of votes.
Millennial and Gen Z voters – roughly those between the minimum voting age of 17 to 39 – will formally become the dominant voting bloc commanding nearly 60% of votes. Combined, this represents up to 114 million voters, as per Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies youth voting survey released last September.
Prabowo has gained that ground quickly. The CSIS youth survey was conducted in August last year before Prabowo had officially announced his presidential bid but after it was clear he intended to do so. That survey found young voters at the time favoured either Ganjar or Anies, and Prabowo would lose to both in a run-off election. Youth voters believed the now-third-time candidate had perhaps aged out of making the sweeping changes to the country many voters are demanding.
A demographic shift of this magnitude is always notable but takes on a particular significance as Indonesia marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of Suharto last month. Not one of these voters was older than 15 when the Reformasi project began and a third weren’t even born. There is no first-hand experience with Prabowo’s alleged human rights abuses from the 1970s until the 1990s.
And while it’s just one poll ten months before the vote and conducted in the aftermath of PDI-P’s disastrous intervention in the U20 FIFA soccer event in Bali, the trend has alarmed activists and progressives. A refusal to investigate or even revisit serious and credible allegations of human rights abuses is a feature of the political elite across Southeast Asia. This has continued in Indonesia under the Jokowi presidency despite hopes in 2014 that his election win would bring answers, if not cases against perpetrators, for the families of victims of alleged state-backed violence.
Indeed, those unanswered allegations were a major aspect of the Jokowi campaign against Prabowo in both 2014 and 2019. That the president tapped his former challenger to join the cabinet as defence minister shortly after winning his second term underscored criticism that Jokowi had abandoned many of his pre-2014 progressive promises and that the PDI-P had feigned concerns about human rights abuses.
Jokowi spent much of the first half of this year championing Prabowo’s 2024 candidacy with high-profile visits and social media posts. Whether that was to back his minister or to pressure PDI-P boss Megawati Sukarnoputri to name Ganjar is still debated. PDI-P is still suffering from its bumbling youth football catastrophe, undermining faith in the party’s ability to read the will of the country, and with few other candidates and an apparent absolution from Jokowi, Prabowo has good reason to be feeling confident.