Indonesia’s youth put candidates to the test

The top quality in a leader expected by young voters is honesty, a sign that a coming election may help hasten Indonesia’s efforts against corruption.

Indonesia's president and candidate Joko Widodo greets supporters at a rally in Solo, Central Java province April 9.

One candidate for president wears jeans and rides a motorcycle. Another picked a running mate who break-dances on stage and earned millions by his 30s as an entrepreneur. Welcome to campaigning for an election in Indonesia whose results may depend on older candidates winning the youth vote – and that could set a new course for the world’s third-largest democracy.

Candidates in the April 17 vote for president and a new legislature are very much catering to people under 35. Of the country’s 187 million eligible voters, more than a third are millennials. Besides attempts at youthful appeals on the stump, candidates know exactly what young voters expect. According to a poll by the Alvara Research Center, they want honesty as well as freedom from corruption in their leaders.

That could be a big ask in a country known for a pervasive culture of corruption. After years of anti-corruption efforts under two presidents, Indonesia has made only slow progress. This need not be the case. According to a new survey by the International Monetary Fund, several countries have made significant progress against corruption in a relatively short period. “These countries reached a ‘tipping point,’ often as a result of a broad-based domestic consensus or an external push to aggressively fight corruption,” the report stated.

The key lies in convincing citizens to pay taxes. The most corrupt countries are those that collect the least in taxes, the IMF found in a survey of 183 countries. In many countries, paying bribes to tax collectors can help lower a person’s tax bills. 

The IMF found that Georgia, for example, was able to raise tax revenue by 13 percentage points after a vigorous campaign against corruption. Colombia, Costa Rica, and Paraguay have provided citizens with online tools to track spending on government projects. Chile and South Korea have cut corruption by moving to electronic procurement systems that enhance transparency and competition.

Since 2014, Indonesia’s president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has taken steps toward clean governance. And the Corruption Eradication Commission has investigated or removed hundreds of officials. But now voters expect more. According to a 2017 poll by Transparency International, 64% of Indonesians view their government’s efforts to fight corruption positively. And 78% agree that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.

With that shift in attitudes, candidates in the 2019 election are competing to become the better corruption fighter. But first they must win over young people. Those voters are the least tied to past behavior and the most eager for honest, transparent government.

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