Indonesian presidential winner charms youth vote with dances, TikTok, and cats

Indonesia's outgoing President, Joko Widodo (left), and incoming President, Prabowo Subianto (right), pose with reporters at an event in 2019. License CC 1.0 via Wikicommons

After the February 14 general election in Indonesia, Prabowo Subiato is set to win the presidency in a landslide victory after the first round of votes. Prabowo is most known for being the special forces commander under former Indonesian dictator Suharto and is also Suharto’s son-in-law. While serving under Suharto, Prabowo carried out numerous human rights abuses, including war crimes in Papua and Timor Leste, a crackdown on student activists that led to at least four deaths and numerous injuries, and the alleged forced disappearance of over a dozen pro-democracy activists.

The former general ran in the last two presidential elections in 2014 and 2019, each time presenting himself as a fiery hardliner populist and running under the banner of the Gerindra party, which he founded in 2008. During these campaigns, he partnered with far-right Islamic groups and often led with divisive rhetoric and ad hominem attacks. After losing in a tense run-off with current president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in 2019, his supporters rioted in the streets, and he challenged the results, claiming election fraud. A court swiftly dismissed these claims. As a means of appeasing these disgruntled voters, Jokowi extended an olive branch and appointed him to his cabinet as minister of defense. 

His relationship with Jokowi appears stronger than ever these days, particularly since Prabowo tapped Jokowi’s oldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, to be his vice president. This move itself was controversial as Indonesian law requires candidates to be at least 40 years old. However, the constitutional court — led by Chief Justice Anwar Usman, Jokowi’s brother-in-law — waved the rule in this case so the 36-year-old could run, arguing that he should be eligible because he had already served as a regional leader in an elected office. 

While it’s discouraged for a sitting president to show preference in Indonesia’s elections, in an astonishing move, Jokowi tacitly endorsed the pair, even overlooking candidate Ganjar Pranowo from his own party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). A documentary has since been released called “Dirty Vote,” alleging that Jokowi used state resources to support Prabowo’s campaign and bribed voters to vote for them.

This support from Jokowi, who, as of December 2023, enjoyed a sky-high approval rate of 76 percent, likely significantly impacted the election. But Prabowo’s success is not thanks to Jokowi alone, but instead reflects a campaign carefully designed to soften his image and harness Indonesia’s influential youth vote, as 52 percent of Indonesia’s eligible voters are between the ages of 17–40. 

The cuddly grandpa

This election, Prabowo presented himself as a lovable, grandfatherly figure complete with a signature dance move, an animated mascot, and a love of cats. The former general courted the youth vote with much success and has wielded TikTok, Instagram reels, and other social media to soften his tarnished image. In the following Instagram post, Prabowo poses with his cat Bobby and the ambassador to China in his home after the ambassador visited to congratulate him on the win.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Prabowo Subianto (@prabowo)

Similarly, in this TikTok video, Prabowo is seen doing his signature “gemoy dance” (cuddly dance) alongside a shuffle around the stage — both hallmarks of his 2024 campaign events.


Lari-lari kecilnya Gemoy amat pak 😁 #WaktunyaIndonesiaMaju #PrabowoGibranIstimewa #viral #fyp #fypシ

♬ original sound – Chand Kelvin – Chand Kelvin

Many of the commenters hailed the former general as being “so cute” and posted messages of support under the clip “​​all in pak Prabowo R1 🥰🥰” and “This man is so enthusiastic, sir, you are sure to win. I'm sure you can do this, you don't have to listen to what people say. You have to be confident, be enthusiastic 🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰”

Prabowo also came out with a catchy campaign song that was shared widely on social media.

In addition to his softened image, many of the youth voters are also too young to remember Prabowo’s previous scandals or the iron-fisted Suharto firsthand. 

With this cultivated affable persona, chatter about Probowo’s previous human rights violations and temper seemed to slide right off of him. Throughout the campaign, he managed to sidestep most judgment over his bloody past, even as his critics pushed campaigns such as “Don’t vote for a kidnapper!

What to expect next

Given Jokowi's immense popularity, much of Prabowo’s campaign rested on him following in the outgoing president’s footsteps. While Jokowi was seen as a hard capitalist whose strength lay in boosting Indoneisa’s trade and economy through international relations, many youth hope Prabowo will likewise help increase jobs and opportunities, with one Tiktok user commenting under a video of the candidate, “I hope that by electing Mr. Prabowo as president, my wallet will also be happy.” 

Much of his campaign promises revolved around reducing international reliance and providing more domestic job opportunities, ramping up domestic food production in order to reduce imports, and launching a program to provide free meals and milk to school children. 

However, some remain unconvinced. 

John Muhammed, one of the activists who was harassed and attacked by Prabowo’s forces as a student activist in 1998, is concerned this could lead to an increase in human rights abuses in Indonesia. He told AlJazeera in an interview:

If Prabowo is president, it will embolden many people. No one will be scared of committing human rights abuses, because he has avoided all the allegations made against him and managed to cover them up.

Environmental activists are also concerned after Prabowo insinuated he would backtrack on some environmental commitments Jokowi made that were intended to reduce deforestation in Indonesia’s endemic rainforests. When asked about Indonesia’s commitment to reducing deforestation by 2030 at COP26, the annual UN climate conference, he said:

It was the Europeans who came to our islands and forced us to plant tea, coffee, rubber, cocoa, and now you’re saying we are destroying our forest. You destroyed our forest.

It remains to be seen whether Prabowo, will maintain this disarming front or will slip back into his old routine of ire and threats once he takes office in October. 

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