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Indonesian presidential election heats up online

The presidential nominee of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, known by the Bahasa acronym PDI-P, is Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo who owes much of his popularity to online campaigning. Photo courtesy of Marcel Thee

JAKARTA -- With Indonesians set to cast ballots on July 9 in a closely fought presidential election, the two front-runners are hoping their aggressive online campaigning will pay off in a land obsessed with social media.

    Representing the main opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle is Jakarta Gov. Joko "Jokowi" Widodo. The current leader in opinion polls, he boasts 1.4 million Twitter followers. His main rival is Prabowo Subianto, representing the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). Prabowo has a team of more than 50 social media specialists hired to ensure that questions received on the candidate's Twitter and Facebook accounts are answered within 15 minutes.

Wired and ready    

Social media has become an essential part of political campaigning in Indonesia, one of the world's largest Internet markets. Twitter has nearly 20 million active users there, and research conducted in 2012 and 2013 found that more tweets originated from Jakarta than anywhere else in the world. The fourth-most populous country is also Facebook's fourth-largest market, with 65 million users.

     Campaign managers of Prabowo, a former army general and one-time son-in-law of ex-President Suharto, say social networking has boosted the Gerindra candidate's appeal among younger Indonesians. This is important in a country where over half of the population is under 30.

     Prabowo has close to 5 million "likes" on his personal Facebook page, while his Twitter account has 740,000 followers. His social media specialists are all under 30, and they are led by a 21-year-old digital strategist, Noudhy Valdryno.

     Valdryno said Gerindra has long been aware of the importance of social media-based campaigning and the role it played in getting U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott elected. Going online, he said, helped lift the party from eighth place in the previous legislative election to third in this year's vote.

Online makeover     

The main thrust of Gerindra's campaign efforts is to make Prabowo likable. The former army lieutenant general has been tied to kidnappings of antigovernment activists and the May 1998 anti-Chinese riots that led to the toppling of Suharto.

     Taufiq Rahman, national affairs editor at the Jakarta Post, said he believes Prabowo's significant rise in popularity owes much to Gerindra's targeting of young, tech-savvy Indonesians who may not be aware of the candidate's controversial history.

     Prabowo is frequently described online by Gerindra as "stern," "brave" or "the national army general," Rahman said. That kind of language, said the journalist, has created a persona that appeals to many of the country's 40 million swing voters. Those too young to remember the instability of the 1990s may find the idea of a strong leader appealing. This may be especially true, he said, for people who regard Widodo -- often described as humble -- as weak.

     Prabowo's performance in recent polls suggests the online campaign is working. He has gone from trailing Widodo by over 20 percentage points to lagging by just 6-7 points.

     Valdryno said his team strives to give the online content populist appeal. "It's about processing political content into something that is easy for anyone to grasp," he said. Most of Gerindra's online content targets people in larger, more Internet-friendly cities, though Valdryno said he is reaching out to remote areas, too.

Independent "army"    

Widodo, meanwhile, is no stranger to using the Internet as a political tool. As governor of Jakarta, he and Vice Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as "Ahok," regularly posted recordings of their public dressing-downs of corrupt or underperforming officials on YouTube. The videos were a hit with the public.

     There are also independent websites that list Widodo's accomplishments. These have become handy tools for his campaign managers. One of them, Ganti Jakarta, or change Jakarta, catalogs in extensive detail the many physical improvements the capital has undergone since Widodo became governor.

     Indeed, most of Widodo's online support comes not from his party but from an army of independent, self-financed digital communities.

      Jasmev, which stands for Jokowi-Ahok Social Media Volunteers, is a group that blogs and posts tweets about Widodo. Kawan Jokowi, which means Jokowi's friends, is an independent organization that sends out news about the candidate via social media.

     Philip Simanjuntak, Kawan Jokowi's 28-year-old spokesperson, said posts about Widodo from supporters' personal accounts are more objective than official posts and therefore more persuasive. Members of Kawan Jokowi include celebrities such as film star Gading Marten, who endorses Widodo via Twitter, where he has more than 3 million followers. Fellow celebrity Alice Norin also uses Twitter to express her support of Widodo to her 650,000 followers.         

Not choosing sides

Nonpartisan political websites and social media platforms are also reshaping Indonesia's political landscape., for example, is a website that informs young voters about the election. Its organizer, Pangeran Siahaan, said social media is a potent way to educate the public about how the political process works and what the candidates and their parties stand for. Even so, he regards social media as merely a tool for amplifying messages presented offline.

     Critics say politicians are abusing social networks. Angga Nugraha Pratama of the website Kultse, or art culture, which seeks to educate voters through satire and art, said parties often wage smear campaigns online, sometimes creating fake accounts to criticize or spread lies about opponents.

     Arie Ho, a 30-year-old father of two, said the Internet has made voters more wary of what he calls "spam news and hearsay." Most people, however, are intelligent enough to ignore what are obviously "paid tweets," he said.

     Pratama of Kultse said while social media has had a big impact on the election, traditional strategies for winning votes are alive and well. He cited festive street campaigns with loud dangdut music and provocative female dancers, and rumors that vote-buying by party officials is still taking place nationwide.

     Also likely to have a big impact on swing voters are TV debates between presidential candidates, which are being held for the first time and have drawn big audiences.

     While the Internet is having a real impact on politics, it is still only one part of a very big process. Even Gerindra's online guru Valdryno acknowledges that social media accounts for only "around 10%" of Prabowo's overall campaign's success.

     What the Internet offers is an easier way for voters to learn about a candidate's accomplishments, said the Jakarta Post's Rahman. Ultimately, he said, what is most important is the candidates' individual qualities, not the technology being used to promote them. 

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