The 32-year-old environmentalist is among a crop of young leaders seeking legislative seats in world’s largest Muslim country.

JAKARTA — “He should be running in Russia, not in Indonesia,” a politician from a rival camp wrote on Twitter. Others poked fun at his name after a photo of his campaign banner went viral on Instagram. So began his political baptism of fire in the age of social media. 

Mikhail Gorbachev Dom is running for a seat in Indonesia’s House of Representatives in the April 17 presidential and legislative elections. And like his famous Russian namesake, he is calling for political reforms in his country.

Dom, also known as Gorba, is an environmental activist and a first-time candidate for an elective post representing Banten, a district just west of the capital, Jakarta. At 32, he belongs to a new generation of young, tech-savvy Indonesians, who make up almost half of the 193 million citizens eligible to vote in the world’s largest Muslim country.

By actively wading into the political arena, Gorba also represents one of the two competing movements in Indonesia’s fledgling democracy -- the other being the Golongan puti, or golput, which urges millennial voters to abstain from casting their ballot in protest of ‘traditional politics’.

One political observer said whichever direction young voters take could well decide the fate of President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, who is in a rematch with Prabowo Subianto.

In 2014, Jokowi rode on a wave of youthful enthusiasm to narrowly defeat Prabowo. Five years on, his charm as the incumbent has faded, while the challenger has stirred up his conservative base, making the election tighter than surveys are showing, IDN Times editor-in-chief Uni Lubis said.

Still, Gorba and his new youth-oriented party are placing their bet on a Jokowi victory. They also hope that Jokowi's coalition will gain a majority in Indonesia's 560-seat legislature.

Lini Zurlia says Jokowi failed to deliver on his promise, so she is advocating for vote abstention or golput.
Lini Zurlia says Jokowi failed to deliver on his promise, so she is advocating for vote abstention or golput. (Ted Regencia / TRTWorld)

‘A new kind of politics’

While active in environmental issues, Gorba admitted that for a long time, he was not too excited about Indonesian politics.

“It’s all about money and corruption. So young people have no appetite to vote, because they see no hope for change,” he told TRT World.

“Old politicians just keep on fighting and yelling at each other, without accomplishing anything,” he said. This year, an estimated 75 percent of House members are running for re-election. 

Then in late 2014, the Indonesian Solidarity Party (also known in Indonesian as PSI) emerged to challenge the ‘old system’, by engaging young voters, promoting pluralism and supporting the rights of women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. In a majority Muslim country like Indonesia, it is PSI’s belief that they have a place within the system, Gorba said.

What finally convinced him to join PSI and run for office, was its pledge to advance innovation as much as its stand on social justice, he explained while sat in the Jakarta-based party headquarters, which looked more like a tech startup than a political operation.

As campaign workers in t-shirts and jeans walked around with their headphones and laptops, Gorba explained that PSI is developing an Uber-like smartphone app, so voters can rate how their elected district representatives are performing in office, and whether they are fulfilling their campaign pledges.

“That really got me. I thought that they are putting into practice their pledge of doing politics in a smart and new way,” he said.

Mikhail Gorbachev Dom at the campaign HQ in Jakarta. Millenials make up almost half of the 193 million citizens eligible to vote in the world’s largest Muslim country.
Mikhail Gorbachev Dom at the campaign HQ in Jakarta. Millenials make up almost half of the 193 million citizens eligible to vote in the world’s largest Muslim country. (Ted Regencia / TRTWorld)

Political campaigning

The party’s innovation aside, the most challenging part of campaigning is still showing up in the community and asking voters for their support, Gorba said.

On several occasions, voters would ask about his religion, he said.

In one campaign stop, Gorba, who is Catholic, was told by a village elder to leave the area, after learning about his religion. Other Muslim supporters, however, came to the rescue and confronted the village elder, telling him that was illegal in Indonesian law.

As a religious minority, Gorba said that he is putting his faith in Indonesian law. By running, he also wants to prove that the majority of the voters “do not accept hate speech and intolerance in the country”, he said, adding that majority of his party members are Muslims.

Another serious challenge candidates now face is the contentious abstention movement called ‘golput’, Gorba said.

Lini Zurlia, an abstention campaigner who voted for Jokowi in 2014, told TRT World that the president “betrayed” young voters by “failing” to advance social and human rights issues important to millennials.

“We gave him a chance. He failed us. 

“There is no difference in policy between Jokowi and Prabowo. So we do not care who wins,” she said, adding that religious intolerance has grown under Jokowi’s watch.

She said that because of her campaign, Jokowi supporters are now calling them "parasites" and "psycho freaks". 

In 2014, an estimated 30 percent of eligible voters abstained. Lini said she expects that number to go up this year.

“As a young generation we should learn to criticise the power structures. Otherwise we will lose what is left of our democracy,” Lini said.

Atar, another abstention advocate, meanwhile criticised the “gimmicky” campaign strategies of the presidential candidates, saying they do not address the real economic and social concerns of young voters.

Gorba, the legislative candidate, said he understands the “principled” stand of golput. He urged other political parties to face up to the issues raised, instead of dismissing the movement as a nuisance.

What’s in a name?

But for all the noise in the campaign, one of the most frequent subjects voters ask about Gorba is his name's origin.

He said that when he was born on July 12, 1986, his parents were expecting a baby girl. So they were unprepared with a name for a male offspring.

It so happened that his father, a police officer, was reading about Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the newspaper. At that time, Gorbachev was promoting glasnost and perestroika reforms in the former Soviet Union, and engaging in talks with the US on nuclear arms control.

“My dad is a big fan of him, so he gave me this name,” he said with a sly smile. 

“But I’m so glad to have this name, because people will not forget me, they will remember me."

 "I think I am the only Mikhail Gorbachev in Indonesia.”

Source: TRT World