JAKARTA (Reuters) - In the Jakarta headquarters of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), workers call each other “bro” and “sis”, and their leader sets the sartorial standard with a pair of ripped jeans.
Dubbed the ‘millennials party’, the PSI is an upstart on the political stage of this Southeast Asian nation that hopes to tap into young voters’ contempt for the entrenched corruption and divisive identity politics of the ruling elite.
The downfall of long-serving autocrat Suharto in 1998 - amid a crisis widely blamed on a culture of nepotism and graft - brought an end to a regime of repression. But two decades later, the 190 million voters of the world’s third-largest democracy are still asked to choose from a crowd of candidates who began their political careers during that period.
The 2019 presidential election looks set to be a repeat of 2014, when current leader Joko Widodo narrowly defeated Prabowo Subianto, an ex-armed forces general who was formerly married to a daughter of Suharto.
The PSI is one of four new parties the General Election Commission is allowing to contest next year’s legislative and presidential elections.
Two of the new parties are fronted by establishment figures. The United Indonesia Party (Perindo) is headed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s business partner in Indonesia, Hary Tanoeseodibjo, while the Berkaya Party is led by Suharto’s youngest son, Tommy, who advocates a return to the “New Order” values of his late father.
PSI leader Grace Natalie, a former television journalist, believes the time has come for a new generation of politicians who would be genuinely accountable to the people.
Her party interviews members seeking nomination for a seat in parliament, and live-streams the discussions on social media platforms. Teachers, corporate lawyers, doctors and bankers are among those whose interviews have aired on Facebook and YouTube.
“No other party is offering what we are in terms of transparency,” she told Reuters at PSI’s headquarters - referred to by party staff as “base camp” - where a wall poster urges “Make Art, Not War”.
Natalie, a 35-year-old mother of two toddlers, set up PSI in 2014, determined to offer an alternative for young voters. It’s a critical demographic with people between the ages of 17 and 25 accounting for about 30 percent of the electorate. Two-thirds of the party’s roughly 400,000 members are under 35.
PSI relies on crowdfunding and donations to run operations across the vast archipelago of Indonesia, and to keep costs down it works from members’ houses and uses donated vehicles.
“This way, no one person can claim that they own the party. Everyone is contributing something,” said Natalie, who was educated in Jakarta and the Netherlands, and speaks proficient English.
So far, PSI has raised 2.6 billion rupiah ($180,000), a tiny sum compared to the coffers of mainstream parties that benefit from poor enforcement of laws limiting political donations.
It will also struggle to get traction with the youth it is targeting.
While the size of the youth vote bank has swelled from 18 percent of total voters in 2004 to 30 percent in 2014, the participation of young voters has dwindled.
Data from the elections commission showed less than half of voters between 17 and 29 years old cast a ballot in 2014 legislative elections compared with around 90 percent among those over 30.
Ella Prihatini, a researcher at the University of Western Australia, in a survey of 253 young voters, found many of them were uninterested in politics.
“On parliament, the dominant answer from respondents was that their MPs are not actually representing them, so why bother voting?” Prihatini said.
Winning support is also likely to be particularly challenging for Natalie, an ethnic-Chinese Indonesian, in a climate of religious and ethnic tensions. Indonesia is a secular country but concerns are growing about the Islamisation of politics in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Jakarta’s former governor, an ethnic-Chinese Christian, was ousted last year after hardline Muslim groups organized massive protests over allegations he insulted Islam. He was later jailed for blasphemy.
The 14 parties contesting next year’s polls include the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which leads the ruling coalition, several other secular parties as well as rising Islamic-oriented parties.
Natalie, who plans to run for parliament next year, conceded she and PSI need a far bigger budget to win support in rural areas, home to nearly half of Indonesia’s population. Her party will back Widodo - a popular moderate reformer - for re-election as president rather than try to field a candidate of its own.
Ibrahim Irsyad Hasibuan, a 20-year-old journalism student from Tangerang outside Jakarta, said young voters are apathetic because they have no faith in the political system, and so PSI could be a wake-up call for his generation.
“But I can’t relate to PSI,” he said. “It is a new political party and has no track record yet.”
Achmad Sukarsono, a Singapore-based political analyst for Control Risks, was dismissive of the new party, arguing that an anti-corruption stance alone will not be enough to win over voters more interested in local and bread-and-butter issues.
“It is a nice utopian effort that shows desire for change from the educated, Westernized elite,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana; Editing by John Chalmers and Bill Tarrant
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