Indonesian presidential hopefuls are trying social media, K-pop to win young voters. Will it work?

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Seventeen-year-old Naima Khairiya Ismah started being bombarded by social media posts from candidates for Indonesia’s presidential election on before she’d even given voting any thought.

As three candidates vie to replace popular but term-limited President Joko Widodo in an election later this month, they’ve been aggressively seeking millennials and Gen Z voters. People between the minimum voting age of 17 and the age of 43 make up about 55% of the country’s 205 million eligible voters.

Candidates are reaching out through the apps young voters use, the K-pop music many love, and even video gaming events.

“As young people, we can’t meet the candidates in person,” said first-time voter Ismah, chatting after class outside her Jakarta high school. “The easiest way to know them is through social media platforms, which is very effective.”

The candidates — former defense minister Prabowo Subianto, 72; governing party candidate Ganjar Pranowo, 55; and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, 54 — are all from Indonesia’s conservative, male-dominated political scene. But their campaigns have been stressing issues that matter to young people: job opportunities, climate change and institutional corruption.

Polls show Subianto well ahead of the other two, though perhaps not with the majority needed to avoid a run-off. Despite being the oldest candidate, his running mate is the youngest: 36-year-old Surakarta mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who also happens to be the sitting president’s son.

Their lead comes primarily from younger voters.

A December survey by the Indikator Politik Indonesia agency showed all three candidates virtually tied in support among voters aged 56 or older, but Subianto clearly ahead in every younger age category.

Subianto was the first candidate to pursue youth support, with social media and video billboard campaigns featuring Pixar-style animated depictions of himself and his running mate. They’re meant to soften the image of the gruff-talking former general, who’s been accused of past human rights abuses, which he has denied.

Last month, Raka showed up at the popular Mobile Legend Championship e-sport tournament in Jakarta to appeal to young gamers.

K-pop has also been playing a role in the contenders’ campaigns.

South Korean bands are incredibly popular in Indonesia, where its huge fanbase has organized behind political causes, organizing online protests against a controversial law and a recent fundraiser for Palestinians caught amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Subianto’s Gerindra Party held a lottery for free tickets to see the popular South Korean girl group BLACKPINK, asking entrants to take a photo in front of a Subianto billboard and post it to Instagram or X, formerly Twitter.

Chong Sung Kim, a parliamentary candidate for the Golkar party has adopted “K-pop” as his campaign slogan, saying it stands for “Kredible, Professional, Objective and Peduli,” the last of which is Indonesian for “caring.” The Golkar party has also endorsed Subianto for president.

Kim, an immigrant from South Korea, has also promised to try and bring more K-pop stars to Indonesia and lower ticket prices for their concerts, as well as build ties with his home country for collaboration on education and more job opportunities for Indonesian youth.

“People in Jakarta are very familiar with the term K-pop. They hear it every day. It is catchy and and easy to understand” Kim told The Associated Press.

It’s not a surprise to see politicians leverage K-pop for votes, said Karlina Octaviany, a millennial longtime fan and digital anthropologist.

“It is important to tap into the biggest online community in the world if you want to win,” she said.

Supporters of Baswedan have also looked to capitalize on K-pop culture, with the popular X account @aniesbubble posting about his campaign activities in Korean. The account claims not to be part of the contender’s campaign, but this couldn’t be independently verified and messages to the user went unanswered.

Also last month, Baswedan made a live appearance on TikTok, where supporters compared him to a K-pop star and coined the Korean nickname “Park Ahn Nice.”

With so much emphasis on trying to win K-pop lovers, primarily young and female, Octaviany said it was vital that the fans not lose sight of the issues when voting and even after the election.

“We have to remain critical, whether our candidate is elected or not, and also look at their performance, track record, and human rights crimes or gender issues,” she said.

That’s what first-time voter Muhammad Fakrezi Syamil is trying to do. The 17-year-old high school student in South Jakarta said he’s trying to look past the glitzy appeals and focus on the issues and track records of the candidates in making up his mind.

“The best predictor of your future behavior is past behavior,” he said. ”So that’s part of my consideration.”

Ismah, the Jakarta high school student, said she wasn’t a K-pop fan but wasn’t opposed to politicians using it to reach to young voters.

“Maybe there are young people who initially did not care about politics, but with the presidential and vice presidential candidates using it to campaign, it may get some K-poppers excited and interested in politics,” she said.

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