For a fleeting moment, before elder politicians started trading barbs at last week’s first presidential election debate, 49-year-old business entrepreneur Sandiaga Uno gave Indonesian voters a glimpse of what the future might hold under a new generation leader from a very different background.
The running mate to opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto, Uno is in fact Generation X, but he earned his first millions in his early 30s and is being cast as a poster boy for the 80 million millennials eligible to vote in April’s presidential and legislative elections.
According to one market research survey conducted last year, fully 95% of that demographic cohort – aged between 24 and 42 – claim they intend to vote on April 17, with many saying they want a leader who is assertive and strong-willed.
If that is the case, the bombastic Prabowo should still be a genuine threat to incumbent President Joko Widodo, as he was in 2014 when a late charge brought him within striking distance of the then rising political star from rural Java.
But that was five years ago. Trailing in the polls and underfunded, today’s Prabowo is more restrained and paying greater attention to his Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and its bid to edge out Golkar as the country’s second largest party. That would be an achievement in itself.
Just what impact millennials will have on the elections is unclear when only a minority fit the image of a well-educated, tech-savvy urbanite climbing the corporate ladder. Most, in fact, have only a tertiary education and are struggling to make ends meet like everyone else in Indonesia.
For all the talk of a monolithic voting bloc, their election day turnout is only likely to match the national average of 70-75%. Even then, a new 10-city IDN Research Institute report shows only 23.4% of educated urban millennials in the 20-35 age group follow politics, little different from mature democracies.
“To them, political issues are too heavy, too complicated and too boring,” says the report, noting that interest is highest among older millennials in Sulawesi (39.8%) and Java (31%), and the lowest in Bali (16.7%), where no-one seems to talk about Jakarta and its politics at all.
Appearances probably count. Progressive, pragmatic and youthful looking, Uno stands in stark contrast to Ma’ruf Amin, the ailing 75-year-old Muslim cleric foisted on Widodo by his coalition partners.
As expected, Amin may have served his purpose in blunting some of the anti-Widodo opposition among Islamic conservatives, but he is mostly a passenger. Uno, on the other hand, has given Prabowo a significant boost, though perhaps not enough to overcome the president’s undoubted popularity.
True to form, Amin had little to offer in the first presidential debate last week. But the generation gap is likely to be on full display in the third session on March 17 when only the vice-presidential candidates will debate education, health, employment and cultural affairs.
To be sure, Uno represents the future, particularly given the very real prospect of him carrying the Gerindra banner into the 2024 presidential election when Prabowo will be out of the picture and his family bereft of any obvious successors.
During last week’s debate, there seemed to be a genuine affection between the 66-year-old retired general and his younger running mate, a far cry from the awkward relationship between Widodo and Amin and the teams of convenience in the past.
But that hasn’t disguised their different views on economic issues. While Prabowo has revived the same old and tired nationalist theme he used in his 2014 campaign, a populist agenda Widodo likewise embraces, Uno has a far more nuanced and pragmatic approach.
As an entrepreneur, Uno understands that less-nationalistic policies and fewer conflicting regulations will allow Indonesia to grow faster. And while he supports the drumbeat of self-sufficiency, he questions why commodity prices are so high and jobs are in short supply.
Uno won’t have everything his own way if he runs in 2024. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son, Agus Harimurti, is a genuine millennial who still enjoys a higher profile on the national stage than Uno because of his father’s name.
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, 49, who turned down the chance to run with Prabowo, is likely to be in the picture as well. But he will need to step up his game if he is to follow Widodo’s lead and use the governorship as a springboard to the presidential palace.
According to the IDN report, 82% of respondents recognize Agus and only 71% can put a name to Uno’s face, including 42% who had to be prompted. That will change as the campaign proceeds.
There has already been a quiet generational change in parliamentary ranks. The average age of the people’s representatives is now 49 – well below the global average of 53 – with 36 millennials and 393 lawmakers in their 40s and 50s elected in 2014.
Sadly, though, persistent corruption shows that a change in generation has not brought with it a change in party culture, evidenced by the involvement of some of the most promising young parliamentarians in a string of graft scandals in the recent past.
According to the IDN report, honesty is still the most important factor millennial voters look for in political candidates, followed by how close they are to the people, competence in the job and ability to bring change.
Significantly, religion ranked only 12th as an election consideration – two places above a candidate’s age – yet a disturbing 19.4% of the millennial respondents supported a sharia state while 22.4% said they would not vote for a non-Muslim leader.
Such contradictions demonstrate that when it comes to Indonesia’s younger generation, political leaders may find themselves as puzzled as the pollsters. Mobile phones and video games don’t always herald change.