Indonesia’s Less than Substantial Presidential Debates

President-elect Prabowo Subianto dancing in one of the televised debates against his rivals. Credit: Media Indonesia.

A Gimmicky Election

Indonesia’s presidential and vice-presidential debate series wrapped up on 4 February 2024. Although each pair of candidates offered some glimpses into their programs and promises, it has been argued that these were considered insufficiently substantive to be translated into implementable policies.

Interestingly, the numerous gimmicks employed by each pair gave the impression that all of them attempted to secure crucial votes from certain voter segments using flashy tactics. 

For example, despite Prabowo Subianto’s advanced age, his gemoy dance dominated TikTok feed. During one of the debates, he even managed to slip in one of his dance moves after (insufficiently) responding to one of Anies Baswedan’s critical questions.

On that occasion, Anies Baswedan posed a question about the perceived decline of democracy in the country, highlighted by the shrinking space for freedom of expression which led some to refer to Indonesia as “Wakanda” in their criticism of the government, for fear of repercussion. However, the mere mentioning of Wakanda alone is gimmicky in nature, leave alone his subsequent utterance of slogan “Wakanda no more, Indonesia forever”.

Prabowo’s running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka was even more aggressive in employing gimmicks. Not only did he wear an outfit that resembled Naruto’s (a popular anime character), he also persistently posed trick questions in abbreviated form and acted a bit.

During one of these sessions, Mahfud MD, a contender against Gibran, responded to Gibran’s query about greenflation. Rather than addressing it seriously, Mahfud also resorted to a gimmick. He mimicked Gibran’s hand gesture while searching for an answer and dismissed the question as receh (cheap), deeming it unworthy of any substantive response.

The employment of gimmicks raises some questions. With the proportion of rational voters increasing compared to previous elections, why had not the candidates switched to more programmatic campaign? Besides, even if gimmicks are so popular, who precisely are the target audience?

The Debates Are Impactful, but for Different Reasons

The General Election Commission (KPU) disclosed that the first four presidential and vice-presidential debates garnered 394 million viewers in total. Unfortunately, this spectacle, filled with gimmicks and celebrity appearance, became the stage for millions of people determining their political choice. The essence of the debate, intended for the exchange of ideas, resembled a drama stage where candidates strive to captivate the audience through performance rather than substantive ideas.

In the initial debate, Prabowo gained peak popularity on Facebook and Instagram not for the substance of his ideas but for his emotional approach. Despite the increase in popularity, there was a 27% negative sentiment. Moving to the second debate, Gibran earned the highest positive sentiment on X at 70% due to his aggressive attack on Muhaimin Iskandar, notably for one question containing an abbreviated concept – the State of the Global Islamic Economy (SGIE).

In the third debate, Anies took a more assertive stance, delving into personal areas by alluding to Prabowo’s vast land ownership. As a result, Anies secured a 76% positive sentiment, while Prabowo garnered 54%. However, what stands out in public memory from this debate is Prabowo’s “omon-omon” phrase and the portrayal of Anies as an antagonistic figure. Anies’ attacks, despite relevant substantially, were exploited by Prabowo’s camp, which mobilized its sympathizers to upload videos of them crying over what they perceived as a personal attack against their candidate.

In the fourth debate, Gibran tried to counter Anies’ dominance in the last debate by playing aggressively. He posed tricky, abbreviated questions again, but instead of reaping a positive response, Gibran received 66% negative sentiment on X. He was perceived as being impolite and snarky, especially when he mimicked Mahfud’s answer to greenflation. On the other hand, Mahfud actually received 71% positive sentiment, due to the image that he was “victimized” by Gibran.

As for the fifth and final debate, Anies led in popularity with 86% of positive sentiment on X, followed by Ganjar with 72% and Prabowo with 43%. While Anies briefly criticized the misuse of social assistance programs, Ganjar also mentioned human rights violations – both narratives were directed at Prabowo. However, this last debate was considered less interesting than the previous debates, because each candidate also tended to agree with each other’s programs.

Based on the aforementioned explanation, it can be inferred that gimmicks significantly influence sentiments towards each candidate, overshadowing the impact of their ideas. This phenomenon underscores the debates’ low quality and indicates that the growing number of rational voters does not necessarily eliminate the emotional aspect, as voters are still swayed by gimmicks on the debate stage.

Winning the Youth Vote?

Gimmicks in elections are not new – other politicians in the past few years have employed them too. Donald Trump and Bongbong Marcos are among those who had employed gimmicks in their presidential bids.

In Indonesia’s context, the employment of gimmicks underscores an awareness of the changing voter demography. Whereas Islamist populism used to be the buzz in the last general elections, this time around gimmicks seem to be the scene-stealer.

The number of youth voters is certainly a factor. Over 116.5 million voters (56% of total voters) are Millennials or Gen Zs, the groups most active on social media and thus most exposed to gimmicky content online. Perhaps this is also why the candidates love their gimmicks, as they are easily converted into short videos or viral memes.

There is a perception that candidates are targeting the less-educated majority with their gimmicks, considering the lack of substance embodied in this tactic. This argument may carry certain weight – after all, only 10,15% of Indonesians are university graduates as of March 2023. Though such is an interesting discussion, unfortunately it falls outside the scope of this article. Regardless, individuals with higher education may also respond to gimmicky campaign or, worse, political hoaxes. As has been suggested, one’s intelligence does not necessarily indicate their ability to develop critical thinking.

A Star-Studded Contest

Coupled with gimmicks, the employment of celebrity support and endorsement add to the perception that the candidates’ campaigns emphasized more on attention-based politics instead of substantive ideas.

The presence of various celebrities and influencers during the debates seems to confirm this. For instance, during the vice-presidential candidate debate on 21 January 2024, figures such as Ria Ricis, Tretan Muslim, Tara Budiman and others were photographed supporting Gibran. Ria Ricis, whose TikTok account has 43.4 million followers, drew considerable attention by sitting directly behind Prabowo during the debate.

Furthermore, Young Lex, who has two million followers on Instagram, also showed his support for the Ganjar-Mahfud duo during the debate held on 22 December 2023. Interestingly, Eca Aura, a TikTok influencer with 3.5 million followers, was seated next to Ganjar Pranowo’s son Alam.

As for the Anies-Muhaimin duo, they received support from Clara Shinta, a mualaf celebrity with 6.6 million TikTok followers,. Standing behind Anies Baswedan after the vice-presidential debate, she not only garnered public attention but also played a crucial role as part of Anies’ national campaign team (team sukses).

The phenomenon of celebrity mobilization actually is not a new occurrence. In the past, the music group Slank supported Jokowi for two terms, adding vibrancy to his campaigns with their concerts. Similarly, figures like Astrid Tiar, Melly Manuhutu, Kirana and Banyu Biro Djarot attended the presidential debates in 2014, standing in front of Balai Sarbini wearing white shirts inscribed with “Kawan Jokowi” (Jokowi’s Friends).

Nevertheless, it is intriguing to underscore the shift in the celebrities enlisted for this debate – particularly younger individuals with massive following on TikTok or Instagram. This shift signifies the growing relevance of TikTok as a new media and a visual-centric platform that resonates more with the youth, supplanting the text-centric trends of Facebook and X.

Moreover, the efficacy of TikTok as a campaign platform has been explored. Over 82.6% of Gen Z voters expressed that TikTok proved effective in conveying campaign messages. Hence, the presence of social media celebrities on the debate stage emerges as a rational strategy adopted by all candidates.

The issue remains – their presence adds little if at all to the debate substance, merely appearing as a political manoeuvre to boost electoral targets. It also highlights the candidates’ hesitance to delve into substantive ideas or engage in programmatic campaigns.


The employment of gimmicks and celebrities actually underscore Indonesia’s demographic bonus – the prevalence of youth who would be shaping Indonesia’s future in the lead up to 2045 and things that they can relate with. However, it also highlights what is missing from the equation – the capability of youth voters to develop critical thinking and rational decision-making skills. This is certainly disappointing. The debates were meant to be a platform to instigate critical thinking, political discourse and vibrant culture. Instead, they became too drama-laden with gimmicks and celebrities becoming the most highlighted points in post-debate environment. As a result, substantive discussion is not necessarily ignited in voters’ daily life after watching these debates. Thus, while people were entertained, they were not enlightened.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Faris Ibrahim is pursuing his Master’s in Islamic Studies at the Indonesian International Islamic University (IIIU). Faris' main research interests include Islam and popular culture, political Islam, and Islamic intellectual history. He previously studied theology and philosophy at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.