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Politics

Widodo basks in Asian Games' glory to woo millennial voters

Motorcycle stunt energizes Indonesian president's bid for re-election

Indonesian President Joko Widodo runs in the torch relay for the Asian Games on Aug. 17 at the presidential palace in Jakarta.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Indonesian President Joko Widodo deftly used his country's impressive performance at the Asian Games to bolster his re-election bid next year, reaching out to social media-savvy millennials with well choreographed appearances.

Indonesia hosted the games for the first time in 56 years this year. Throughout the roughly two-week event, which ended on Sept. 2, Widodo made numerous public appearances designed to raise his public profile.

Widodo was on hand when national hero and Olympic medalist Eko Yuli Irawan won the men's 62-kg weightlifting competition on Aug. 21. The president, wearing a jacket in Indonesia's national colors of red and white, flashed a broad smile as he presented the gold medal to Irawan.

Widodo also watched the men's team badminton finals on Aug. 22 in jeans, and even ran in the torch relay.

But his biggest hit over the roughly two-week event was his cameo at the opening ceremony on Aug. 18, where Widodo appeared to ride into the stadium on a motorcycle. The actual stunts were performed by a professional, but he was nevertheless welcomed by crowds chanting his nickname, "Jokowi."

An actor impersonating Indonesian President Joko Widodo rides a motorcycle into the opening ceremony of the Asian Games on Aug. 18 in Jakarta.   © Reuters

Widodo's only opponent in the election, former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, was also visible at the games. He watched a match of pencak silat, a type of Indonesian martial arts, and praised his country's athletes on Wednesday.

But the president seemed to have the upper hand with a media strategy focused on millennials -- 20- to 30-somethings who are about the same age as the athletes at the games. Securing the young vote will be key for Widodo's re-election, given that millennials account for over 30% of Indonesia's population.

The voting age in Indonesia is 17. In a poll conducted by LSI Denny JA during the first week of the games, Widodo and his running mate had 50.8% support among voters 39 and under, compared with Prabowo's 31.8%. The opening ceremony gave Widodo a boost, according to LSI's Adjie Alfaraby.

The president could continue to ride his success from the Asian Games. There is speculation he will appoint Erick Thohir, a businessman who led the event's organizing committee, as his new campaign chief.

But it is unclear how long the high will last. Both Widodo and Prabowo are expected to focus on the economy in their campaigns, particularly on issues popular among younger generations, like job creation. Meanwhile, the central bank has been unable to keep the rupiah from losing value, and could cause consumption to cool if it continues to raise interest rates.

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