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Social media and elections in Southeast Asia: Courting the Youth in Indonesia and the Philippines


Introduction

Soon, Indonesia will have a new president. After ten years in office, the widely popular president Joko Widodo will be succeeded by Indonesia’s former defence minister Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo’s election win was confirmed by the elections commission in March 2024 after the election took place on February 14. He won with a striking 59 per cent of the votes (Ng, 2024). His election is not uncontroversial. Prabowo is a former general, who has been part of the authoritarian regime under Suharto and has been accused of human rights abuses in Timor-Leste in the 1980s and 90s (Tarigan & Ibrahim, 2024).


Additionally, in the Philippines, a politician with a troubled past was elected president in 2022. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was put into power by the electorate with around 60 per cent of the votes (Venzon, 2022). 


What might seem striking is that in both countries particularly young people seemed to support the two candidates. Social media has been brought forward as a factor in influencing young people’s opinions in Southeast Asia (see, for instance, Said & Berghaus, 2024).

This article argues that social media serves as an efficient platform to make people turn a blind eye to the controversial pasts of Prabowo and Marcos Jr. However, social media campaigns have not been the deciding factors in these elections. Rather, it was contention with authoritarian developments and increasing illiberal views of Indonesians and Filipinos that served the interests of the two strongmen in both Southeast Asian countries. 


The case of Indonesia

Indonesia is a fairly young country in the sense that more than half of the population is under 40 years old (BPS, 2022). It has been mainly the votes of the young people that led to Prabowo’s fulminant victory. An exit poll shows that 66 per cent of all Gen Z voters (aged 17 to 25) decided to cast their ballot in favour of Prabowo on election day in 2024 (Bambang Setiawan, 2024). In comparison, 60 per cent of people between 26 and 33 years and only 43 per cent of people over 56 years voted for Prabowo (Bambang Setiawan, 2024). This poses the question of why particularly young people support a candidate who has been accused of severe human rights violations. 


It has been noted that Prabowo was able to pull off a remarkable social media marketing campaign that catapulted him to the likes of the younger generations (see, for instance, Lehmann-Jacobsen, 2024; Rachman, 2024). In his campaign, Prabowo leveraged an online persona, a cartoon version of himself, to portray himself as someone cute and loveable, or “gemoy” in Indonesian (Lehmann-Jacobsen, 2024). His rebranding efforts were supported by so-called “buzzers”, which refers to content creators that disperse propaganda materials online (Iannone, 2024). 



It might not seem far-fetched that a successful social media campaign would be able to effectively influence a populace which is as active online as Indonesians. According to a recent report, Indonesian social media users spend on average 3 hours and 11 minutes on social media daily, which is nearly one hour above the global average (we are social, 2024). 

It is, however, debatable to which extent Prabowo’s new cute persona was responsible for attracting the votes of the youth. In a survey conducted by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, only one per cent of the respondents that claimed to like him named “gemoy” as a reason for liking Prabowo. On the other hand, around 54 per cent mentioned adjectives such as “firm”, “authoritative”, or “tough” as positive attributes of him (Sastramidjaja, 2024). Thus, Prabowo’s strongman image might have actually been more effective in winning him votes than his rebranding. 


Another factor that might have facilitated Prabowo’s chances to win the election was the support of former president Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi (Arifianto, 2024). Jokowi’s endorsement was mainly expressed through the nomination of Jokowi’s son Gibran Rakabuming Raka as Prabowo’s running mate (The Jakarta Post, 2023).


Experts claim that under Jokowi’s presidency, democracy has witnessed a decline (Mujani & Liddle 2021; Taufik et al. 2023). This becomes also clear in a controversial court ruling that allowed Gibran to run for vice president despite being too young according to former rules (The Jakarta Post, 2023). Nevertheless, Jokowi still enjoys popularity in Indonesia with nearly 80 per cent being satisfied with his performance (Ramadhan, 2024). This popularity mainly emanates from the success of his economic governance, which has resulted in an average annual economic growth of 4.2 per cent during his time in office and a considerable increase in foreign direct investment (Guild, 2024). Moreover, the construction of infrastructure, such as airports and power plants, during Jokowi’s presidency has probably been beneficial for his popularity (Guild, 2024). Indonesians also do not necessarily agree with the alleged democratic decline. In February 2024, nearly 71 per cent stated that democracy in Indonesia is in good or very good condition (Christa, 2024). 


Prabowo positioned himself as the candidate that would continue Jokowi’s policies. For instance, he promised to go on with Jokowi’s ambitious plan to move Indonesia’s capital from Jakarta to a newly developed city, called Nusantara, on the island of Borneo (Antara News, 2024). Jokowi, for his part, has leveraged his popularity to gather voters for Prabowo and his son.

The opposition accused him of using state infrastructure to mobilise support for the two candidates. Instead of handing out cash for a social aid project spaced out over January to March 2024, as initially planned, the money was given away all in February, the month of the election (The Jakarta Post, 2024). 


Concurrently, it seems that the social media campaign and related rebranding of Prabowo were not the main reasons why young voters voted for him. In fact, a more influential factor was his image as a strong leader who would continue the legacy of Jokowi and his policies fuelling economic development. Prabowo’s controversial human rights record does not seem to have been a primary deciding factor for Indonesian voters. 


The case of the Philippines 

When taking a look at the 2022 election in the Philippines, the similarities with the recent Indonesian elections become evident. Just like Indonesia, the Philippines boasts quite a young population. People aged between 15 and 29 correspond to around 30 per cent of the total population (Jorge, 2022). Younger generations have also overwhelmingly supported Marcos Jr. in his bid for president. A survey conducted three months prior to the election revealed that 71 per cent of Filipinos aged 18 to 24 supported Marcos Jr. for president (Ranada, 2022). Interestingly, in other age groups, only 54 to 63 per cent favoured Marcos Jr. (Ranada, 2022).


Similarly to Prabowo, Marcos Jr. harnessed social media to draw attention away from controversial topics, namely the violent past of his family. On platforms like TikTok and YouTube, he posted approachable content such as family vlogs which were mixed with political messages (Guzman, 2022). 


Moreover, Marcos Jr. also chose the child of the former president as his running mate, namely Sara Duterte, the daughter of previous president Rodrigo Duterte (Mercado, 2021). It can be argued that the success of Marcos Jr. stems from his alliance with the Duterte family. The strongman Rodrigo Duterte, who had launched a brutal war on drugs, stayed popular during the vast majority of his tenure with approval ratings mostly above 50 per cent (BBC, 2022). 


A study by Dulay et al. (2023) seems to support this assumption. In their analysis to find the factors most likely predicting support for Marcos Jr., it was found that support for President Duterte was one of the main predictors, alongside other factors such as support for former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. According to Dulay et al. (2023, p. 12), a person who strongly supports Duterte was five times more likely to also support Marcos Jr. in comparison to a person who strongly opposes the former president. 


Hence, the vote for Marcos Jr. can be regarded as a call for continuity of the tough leadership of Duterte (Dulay et al., 2023, p. 13). The majority of voters in the Philippines do not seem to mind the democratic decline, which has accompanied the presidency of Duterte (Wong, 2020). This decline manifested itself in the violent fight against drug trafficking which has attracted allegations of human rights violations and extrajudicial killings (Wong, 2020).


It is, however, important to note that the alliance between the Marcos and the Duterte families has experienced a rift over the past months. Their differences became most notable in January 2024, when the two political clans had opposing views on a plan of the government to amend the country’s constitution, with Rodrigo Duterte and his supporters being against the proposal of Marcos Jr (Palatino, 2024). This poses the question of whether a similar fate is awaiting the joining of forces between Jokowi and Prabowo in Indonesia.


Conclusion

In Indonesia as well as in the Philippines recent elections have brought politicians with a “strongman” image to power. These leaders have been supported mainly by the youths in both countries. Without a doubt, there have been a multitude of factors at play when it comes to the reasons for the rise to power of the two new presidents. 


One factor is arguably the satisfaction of the people with the presidents’ predecessors and their authoritarian attitudes. It can be argued that voters in both countries are turning increasingly to illiberal views. While the role of social media in swaying the opinion of the youth can be debated, it is very well possible that the successful campaigns of Prabowo and Marcos Jr. have helped the candidates keep attention away from their historical burdens. 


The turn to illiberal views in Indonesia and the Philippines might raise fears of a comeback of the old dictatorships. The youth’s support for populists fails to raise optimism in this regard. 


 

References

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