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Meet Indonesia's middle class (part 3): Votes and voices

Meet Indonesia's middle class (part 3): Votes and voices

This is the third in a four-part series on Indonesia's growing middle class. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

In Indonesia, the word for 'vote' is the same as the word for 'voice'. The urban middle class is vocal on Twitter but said to be apathetic at the ballot box, until the right candidate comes along. How is the noisy middle class shaping Indonesia's political future? 

Jakarta Govenor Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has risen to such prominence that it's hard to remember a time when he was the underdog for the 2012 gubernatorial race. A charismatic small town mayor with a track-record of reform, he and running mate Basuku Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok) were behind in the polls two months before the first of two electoral rounds.

As political consultant Yunarto Wijaya explains, 'all the surveys predicted that (the incumbent) Fauzi Bowo would be the next Governor. In my survey, two months before the election, I only had about 23% voting for Jokowi/Ahok'. Some polls predicted that the incumbent could win the first of two electoral rounds by as much as 49%.

But, Yunarto says, much of the middle class remained undecided. A survey by respected pollster Indonesia Survey Institute (LSI) confirmed that an unusually high 30% of respondents made their decision within the last week of the first round election. And on the day, says Yunarto, it was the middle class that turned out in force for Jokowi. Jokowi/Ahok won the first round with 43% of the vote to the incumbent's 34%. They went on to win decisively in the run-off.

LSI called the first round election result a 'middle class protest'. Does the growth of the middle class herald a sea change in Indonesian politics? [fold]

To be clear, pollsters here are using a broad measure of the 'middle class' that captured up to 40% of the population, a group that incorporates a good chunk of the 'emerging' or 'developing' middle class, as well as what we might consider the middle class proper. In Jakarta, where overall voter turnout was just 63%, it's not a stretch to see how emerging middle class may be able to exert real pressure.

It is not clear whether Jokowi's popularity and success has indeed inspired other electorates (middle class or otherwise) to choose their own reform figures. As Dave McRae has pointed out, of the twelve gubernatorial elections subsequent to the historic Jokowi/Ahok win, ten went to incumbents. But recent mayoral polls in Bandung and Bogor provide some evidence that the urban middle classes may have swung elections for non-establishment candidates, despite their reputation for being jaded and apathetic about politics. According to Yunarto: 'In Jakarta, Bandung and Bogor, turn-out among the middle class increased. These people like Jokowi and Ridwan Kamil (an architect) in Bandung — they are representatives of the middle class. Good-looking, successful in their businesses. They wear Zara.'

In the world's most active Twitter city, the loudest middle class voices are online. Social media appears to be a good barometer of middle class attitudes to politics. In 2012, analytical firm Politica Wave used online sentiment analysis to predict  that Jokowi/Ahok would lead in the first round and to predict their second round total within a percentage point. Yose Rizal, founder of Politica Wave, explains that the middle class isn't susceptible to traditional modes of Indonesian politicking:

These people don't want to be given cheap T-shirts, or watch dangdut [a type popular music]. But now with social media they have found a new channel. No need for them to go out in the heat, a tweet will be read by friends and that will influence them.

How much influence do those noisy voices have in their own right? In an electoral environment where perception of character is important, endorsements within social networks (or conversely, slander gone viral) may well carry weight. Social media can also provide a platform to organise around more practical issues. Indonesian facilitates communities to build online petitions; their minor wins include this agreement by national airline Garuda Indonesia to not require disabled passengers to sign an indemnity form before they fly.

However, most agree that these examples remain few and far between. The 'Gecko vs Crocodile' (also known as Bibit-Chandra) and 'Coins for Prita' cases are still cited as the most compelling examples of mass mobilisation through social media. New media researcher Merlyna Lim estimated in 2012 that 'No less than 99% of efforts to emulate the success of Bibit-Candra and Prita have failed'.

State sponsored efforts to get citizens to report problems or wrongdoing by public institutions via social media (like the 'Lapor!' (Report!) service provided by the President's Delivery Unit) have potential but stand or fall on an institution's ability and willingness to respond to complaints effectively. In a 2012 report, the unit admitted that 'We don't want to push this too much yet because we don't want people to get disappointed by the current service quality given by the ministries.' 

So change must also come from the top. And when it comes to elections, issues continue to take a back seat to values. Over and over, polls find that Indonesians from all classes are looking for 'honesty' from their leaders, people who appear to care about Indonesia's future beyond their own self-interest. In this respect, the middle class is no different. In December, Commissioner Sigit Pamungkas at Indonesia's General Elections Commission told middle class voters it was up to them to participate, and to encourage high quality candidates in the upcoming presidential elections. 

Riding high on a wave of popularity, Jokowi is the undisputed frontrunner for the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections, despite not yet securing his party's nomination or announcing his candidacy. History may record that by propelling him into the national spotlight, Jakarta's 'middle class protest' put Jokowi on the road to the presidency.

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