The power of millennial votes in Southeast Asia
MANILA/BANGKOK/JAKARTA — In early 2019, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines will go to polls in elections that will either continue the populist/authoritarian dynamics that has gripped the region, and the world, over the past few years or begin to halt it.
All three countries have reached a critical crossroad with poll choices that could influence the destiny of the country for decades to come.
While the specific stakes might differ for each country, all will be determined by the turnout and choices of its young voters. More than half of the population of Southeast Asia is under the age of 30.
Progressivism, issues-based rhetoric appeals more to this new demographic than traditional voting lines, age-old political fiefdoms or conservative issues.
This reality is having an affect on the platforms of the region’s politicians and the way they campaign.
In Indonesia, conservative, faith-based politics will be a central issue in elections. The largest Muslim country in the world, both President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his main challenger Prabowo Subianto have made appeals to conservative Islamic elements within the country in their campaigning.
Both candidates will have to work hard to woo young people whose politics are less faith based and more grounded in current issues that concern Indonesians including the economy and the future.
According to locally-conducted research, these young voters are a particularly tricky demographic segment to engage.
Golput, short for golongan putih, a colloquial Indonesian term that encompasses protest votes, vote abstention and ballot spoiling, has taken over social media feeds in recent weeks with Indonesians publicly lamenting their dissatisfaction with the major presidential candidates and announcing plans to sit this election out.
In response, the General Elections Commission (KPU), concerned that a low turnout might delegitimize the election, has launched a campaign to encourage voters to participate in the democratic process.
The KPU has listed 187.1 million eligible voters on the final voter list – with 185.08 million domestic voters and 2.04 million voters living overseas. The 17-35 age groups amount to 79 million individuals (42 percent) of total registered voters.
The young people who spoke about the upcoming elections with The Jakarta Post expressed excitement and curiosity about their country’s political process. One young voter, Hannalia Valentine, 19, said she will be casting her ballot for the very first time on April 17.
“As this will be my first election experience, I want to see the formation of voting booths, and once I’m in one, what do I do next? I’ve seen how the counting is done but because this is my first time participating,” she said.
And she plans to be a fully informed voter.
“I want to learn about the process from the beginning till inauguration,” Valentine added.
Another young person, Daril Widhi Wicaksana, 21, expressed particular hope that whoever the country elects as president will take on some of Indonesia’s tougher social problems, including minority rights, an issue that has become one of the hot-button topics in the final months of the contest, with Jokowi’s record thus far getting extra attention from voters and pundits.
“I hope [whoever is elected] can improve the various problematic sectors in this country and solve social issues such as discrimination against minority communities in Indonesia,” said Daril, when asked about his hopes for the country moving forward.
Gregorius Nikolaus, a 21-year-old resident of Jakarta, has a different, though no less important hope.
“My hope for this country is to things improve in various areas, don’t just focus on Java, there should be even distribution, if possible,” he said, another point where the incumbent president’s record may face voter scrutiny in the polling booth.
While Jokowi has made poverty alleviation a major concern of his administration, analysts have pointed out that inequality has risen under his leadership due, perhaps, to a Java-centric approach to development.
On May 13, voters in the Philippines will take to the polls to elect a wide variety of nationwide and local offices — including senators, members of the house of representatives, governors, and more.
While President Rodrigo Duterte is not up for re-election this cycle, his agenda and his record are nonetheless topics of debate among the candidates and the public, and he stands to emerge a winner overall if the opposition loses its grip on the Senate.
And, the young people in the Philippines seem to have been paying attention.
More than one-third of the voters in the Philippines are in the 18 to 35 bracket, according to the country’s Commission on Elections, or Comelec, with some 1.5 million Filipino youth eligible to vote for the very first time in this year’s polls.
Officials and organizations are encouraging high youth participation in the upcoming elections.
The Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, a non-partisan, non-profit affiliated with the Catholic Church is working to encourage young voters to begin evaluating candidates.
Young voters have been turned off from political activity in the past. A report from the Philippine Daily Inquirer in early 2018 showed that youth who might otherwise consider participating in political life—either by running for office themselves, or by voting—were becoming disillusioned by corruption and nepotism.
Corruption is a real concern for many young voters. In a conversation with INQUIRER.net, one voter, Gene Secillano, 21, said that his main hope for the country centers around the eradication of graft.
“Of course, what we really want for the country is to be orderly, peaceful and prosperous. The Philippines is not poor. Filipinos only suffer from poverty because of the corrupt politicians in the government,” Secillano said.
Another young voter, Kenneth Tagayuna, 23, was even more explicit about where he feels some of the blame for unchecked corruption lies.
“What I hope for those who are running in the election is that they prioritize education for the poor and eradicate corruption,” Tagayuna said, before adding that corruption hasn’t been enough of a priority for Duterte.
“Our president right now focuses more on eliminating drugs,” he said.
Indeed, while President Duterte said he would only campaign on behalf of candidates whose records were free of corruption, he has not stuck to that promise.
The President has endorsed Jinggoy Estrada, for example, in his comeback bid for senator. Estrada is currently on trial for 11 counts of graft in which he allegedly pocketed USD 3.5 million of his pork barrel allocations when he was a previously a senator.
While the issues of the day and the policy platforms of the candidates are a major concern for these young voters. They are also focused on the logistics of the elections—namely, whether the contest will be free and fair.
“I hope for a clean and smooth elections because there has been controversy about cheating in the past,” Gabriel Moreno, 20, told INQUIRER.net, adding, “I hope that anyone who wins was really the one which the public really voted for.”
Perhaps the country presenting the starkest difference in choices, Thailand will be holding its first elections since a military coup in May 2014.
At stake is the country’s democratic future with military-backed parties on the ballot and poised to re-elect the current military despot, Prayuth Chan-ocha.
With an all military-appointed senate also joining in to vote for the next prime minister, elected MPs will need to have a strong mandate to avoid further military rule.
The country’s young voters have been persecuted by the military with the progressive party, known as the Future Forward Party, at threat of dissolution for criticizing the military government.
Students who have defied a military ban on political gatherings have also been arrested, jailed and persecuted for standing up for their rights.
If the political parties are to defy the veneer of democracy disguising a military takeover, young people will need to mobilize and make their voices heard.