Like all good politicians, Indonesia’s presidential candidates have signed up on Facebook, Twitter, and a whole host of other social networking sites popular with Indonesians.
And while this would not seem unusual in most countries these days, in Indonesia it is actually a powerful indicator of change.
Only ten per cent of the 230 million people in Indonesia have access to the internet, and yet the internet has played a major role in this years presidential campaigns.
Indonesians are some of the most active bloggers and networkers in the world discussing everything from pop stars to politics. A stark contrast to the world of censorship experienced for more than thirty years under President Soeharto until just over a decade ago.
Head of Communication and Media at the University of Wollongong, Professor Philip Kitley, has spent a career following and critiquing the changes experienced by the Indonesian press.
“Print media in Indonesia was very brave at times and chose to write critically but also constructively about how society should change, but at the expense of papers being shut down.”
The media can now write critically. Mr Kitley says the world of online new media has added that extra level of public debate.
“It has the value of becoming an everyday medium for the educated and fairly privileged sector of Indonesia to talk amongst itself about what’s happening.”
Enda Nasution is a well known blogger in Indonesia. Trained as an engineer but passionate about writing, Mr Nasution is now a consultant to major companies on how to connect with audiences online.
He has also launched several of his own Indonesian specific networking sites. The latest is Politikana.com, a forum for debate and discussion, launched in March this year.
Mr Nasution describes Indonesia’s media transformation since the fall of Soeharto’s New Order in 1998 as a roller coaster ride, but believes things are now beginning to level out.
“I think we are on the right track, given some more time. I think we can have the right balance between media freedom and media responsibility, whether it’s old or traditional media, or new media.”
This enthusiasm has forced the three 2009 presidential candidates, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono; Megawati Sukarnoputri; and Jusuf Kalla, to have a strong and active presence online.
Facebook is the most popular for the politicians, each with their own profiles and fan pages. A strategic choice considering Inside Facebook measured the growth rate of Indonesians on Facebook as 645% in 2008 making this networking site a favorite for politicians.
“People with internet access get more exposure to competing arguments and points of view. Internet users are a tougher crowd I believe. They are people who would not just accept something without checking,” Mr Nasution said.
Politikana.com is most frequented by young and educated Indonesians and journalists. The site has already registered 5 000 members and attracts up to 25 thousand hits a day.
“Politikana acts as an open place especially developed to discuss things about politics and political related issues. Before that, free political thought was already roaming the Indonesian cyberspace but mostly on a more closed mailing list or group or scattered around several blogs.”
Professor Kitley says that although only a minority of Indonesians are directly involved the ideas and opinions are filtered out to a wider audience.
“Communication works indirectly…it doesn’t take long to spread out to other people (so it’s not elitist in that sense it is) working for other people even thought it’s only narrow of people who have direct access.” Professor Kitley said.
Mr Nasution agrees.
“Ideas, events and opinions jump through to the wider audience when picked up by the mainstream media,” Mr Nasution said.
In a matter of weeks, Indonesia will head to the polls to vote in only their second democratic election. Who will win is unpredictable, but you can be sure that the Indonesian cyberspace will be as active as ever following the counts to elect the countries next President.
Meet the candidates
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is more commonly known as SBY. This former military general is running for re-election for the Democratic Party.
SBY has run the country for the past four years with the Chairman of the Golkar party, Jusuf Kalla, as Vice-President. In a true Indonesian political twist, Jusuf Kalla is actually running against SBY in this election for the Golkar Party.
The third candidate for this election is Megawati Sukarnoputri who has already been President from 2001 to 2004 after Abdurrahman Wahid. Wahid took the role of President when Suharto resigned and then was himself forced out – leaving then Vice-President Megawati to take the place. Megawati is actually the daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno and runs for the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle.