Why Indonesia Calls Its Elections a ‘Democracy Party’

The young women and men moved from booth to booth, asking questions about the political hopefuls’ track records and visions for the country. A few steps away, first-time voters practiced casting their ballots in pretend voting booths. And onstage, talk show guests discussed how to make an informed choice in backing a candidate.

This gathering of more than a thousand people one recent Sunday in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, was a prelude to a celebration that is widely known here as “Pesta Demokrasi,” or Democracy Party.

Otherwise known as Election Day, it’s when tens of millions of people across this vast archipelago of thousands of islands head to polling stations that are sometimes decorated with balloons, garlands and flowers, and manned by officials dressed up as Spider-Man, Batman, Thor or other superheroes. After voting for presidential, parliamentary and local legislative candidates, people camp out near their polling places with food as they wait for early counts to trickle in. The next “party” is on Wednesday.

Free and fair elections in Indonesia were unthinkable as recently as the mid-1990s, when it was still under the brutal rule of Suharto. But after his fall in 1998, the country emerged as the world’s third-largest democracy. Partly because Election Day is a national holiday, voter turnout has consistently been among the highest in the world and reached a record 80 percent in 2019. With the minimum voting age set at 17, the biggest bloc this time is people under 40, who make up more than half of the 205 million voters in Indonesia.

The presidential election is a three-way race, and billboards with the faces of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Prabowo Subianto and Ganjar Pranowo — loom over major roads. Their debates are furiously discussed on Instagram, TikTok and X. Indonesians refer to the three men by their candidate numbers, so in homes, warungs and cafes here, the inevitable question is: “Are you voting for 1, 2 or 3?”

But even this vibrant electoral process has its limits.

“Indonesia is very new to democracy, and a lot of people are not used to choosing their candidates based on track records and ideas,” said Abigail Limuria, an organizer of the “Election Festival” gathering in Jakarta that aimed to educate voters about the candidates and issues. “Many of them just vote based on who their family is choosing.”

This campaign has also raised serious questions about the future of the hard-won democratic norms in Indonesia. President Joko Widodo, the popular incumbent who is barred from seeking a third five-year term, has alarmed critics with dynastic machinations that have allowed his son to run for vice president. Though not explicitly endorsing anyone, he has appeared to engineer an alliance with Mr. Prabowo, a former rival who has long been accused of human rights abuses and was once married to a daughter of Suharto, the dictator.

Yet there is still a belief that ultimately every vote matters.

“I am taking this as an opportunity to contribute to change Indonesia for the better,” said Shiela Mutia Larasati, 25, a fashion entrepreneur based in Jakarta. “Previously, I was still young and apathetic. But now, I have hope for Indonesia.”

Recent elections in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, have been marred by ugly identity politics — Mr. Joko was called a “Chinese Christian” (he is neither), and Mr. Prabowo, who has sought the presidency multiple times but never won, was dogged by questions about how many times he prayed in a day. Campaigning used to mean distributing food supplies to get votes. But this year, the political discussion appears to be more open about issues like democracy and defense, even if the presidential candidates all offer a vision akin to that of Mr. Joko: policy based on infrastructure and welfare projects.

“I think that’s a good sign of the improvement of democracy,” said Danis Syahroni, 24, a postgraduate student at Gadjah Mada University in the city of Yogyakarta. “We can debate and discuss candidates’ ideas.”

About 1,200 young people turned up at a convention hall in Jakarta where the “Election Festival,” known locally as “Festival Pemilu,” was held. By midafternoon, the line was so long that organizers had to turn people away. One of the headliners was a group of young comedians known as “Trio Netizen.”

“If you get elected and you become someone important, don’t become crazy, yah?” said one of the comedians, Eky Priyagung, a reference to the 2019 election, when the opposite happened: Some candidates who lost were so devastated that they had to seek inpatient care for their mental health. The crowd burst out laughing. (This year, several hospitals have announced that they have prepared psychiatric wards for candidates.)

The event was an offshoot of a website called “Bijak Memilih,” or Choose Wisely, that caters to young voters. Ms. Limuria said she wanted to start the website because many young people have expressed confusion about whom to vote for in this election. Some are skeptical about the independence of the country’s media outlets, owned by tycoons who often hew to their political patron’s interests.

To drive voters to polls, activists have relied on memes and stunts like putting out TikTok videos equating the candidates with various Taylor Swift songs. A Spotify Wrapped campaign playfully overlaps music with corruption statistics.

At least one candidate has also used social media to his advantage. With the aid of savvy digital tactics, Mr. Prabowo has had some success in rebranding himself from a feared general into a cuddly grandfather. Many young people simply do not know about his past. His apparent alliance with Mr. Joko has additionally helped his popularity.

In recent weeks, opposition to Mr. Prabowo has coalesced around images of people brandishing four fingers on one hand. The message: Voters should pick anyone except Mr. Prabowo and choose either No. 1 (Mr. Anies) or No. 3 (Mr. Ganjar).

Mr. Anies, a former governor of Jakarta, has found support from an unlikely bloc: Indonesian K-pop fans. They have rented a food truck, crowd-funded digital billboards, and ordered light sticks for his last rally before the election. Many say they were taken by Mr. Anies after he emerged from a debate and did a TikTok livestream with his supporters, where, like a K-pop star, he answered questions about his love life and his favorite books.

If none of the three candidates win more than 50 percent of the vote, the race will head to a runoff in June. Recent surveys suggest Mr. Prabowo could pass the 50 percent mark, but that is far from certain. What remains certain is the high level of civic engagement.

“I’m really excited to take part in the democracy party,” said Kayla Jasmine, 20, a first-time voter attending the “Election Festival” in Jakarta.