Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Pic: AP.

With the release of Prabowo Sang Patriot last month, Prabowo Subianto’s presidential campaign had already taken a rather unorthodox turn. The 33-minute autobiographical documentary, produced and funded by Prabowo’s billionaire younger brother Hashim Djojohadisukomo, depicted the presidential hopeful as an infallible hero of myriad forms, descended from a proud line of Javanese luminaries and ready to lead the nation back to its former glory. Despite Hashim’s claims to the contrary, Prabowo Sang Patriot clearly constituted an elaborate and rather fanciful attempt to canvass the attention of Indonesian voters. Prabowo’s colourful canvassing did not stop there, however. Only a week later the Gerindra party’s unusual brand of propaganda veered further from the beaten track –  this time marching gallantly into the medium of song.

As of March 12, Prabowo’s presidential bid became fully musicalised. The Gerindra party opened up an official account on SoundCloud.com, and proceeded to upload no less than seven professionally produced campaign tracks, each invariably dedicated to lavishing bountiful praise on the great leader’s vision for a “greater Indonesia”.

The predominant themes which characterise Gerindra’s SoundCloud repertoire are much akin to those presented in Prabowo Sang Patriot. In the main, the songs portray an image of Indonesia as being in the midst or on the verge of a major politico-moral crisis, and hark back to an unspecified point in history when the country reigned supreme as a proud “Asian tiger” (a lyrical embellishment apparently crafted by Prabowo himself). Naturally, the alleged crisis begs the fastidious leadership of an “honest” and “daring” president, under whose authority Indonesia may flourish and rekindle its former glory.  The pietistic self-image of the Gerindra leader, already meticulously honed in the design of Prabowo Sang Patriot, is therefore voraciously prominent among the lyrics of Gerindra’s campaign soundtrack.   

Take Prabowo Presidenku, for instance, the centrepiece of Gerindra’s musical collection and the track which also plays out the credits in Prabowo Sang Patriot. Prabowo Presidenku is an uplifting orchestral number, complimented by a rich and harmonious vocal score. The first verse builds tension and tickles the imagination of the patriotically aspiring voter, with whispers of an archipelago-wide, anthropomorphic prophecy:

The sun shines in the East and awakens his passions. He lives among us like the great garuda. Once more shall Indonesia be an Asian tiger. The earth wrestles impatiently awaiting him. From Papua to Aceh, he is expected.

(Mentari bersinar di Timur bangkitkan gairahnya. Dia hadir di tengah kita bagaikan Garuda. Kembalikan Indonesia jadi macan Asia. Bumi persadapun tak sabar menantinya. Dari Papua ke Aceh mengharapkan dia.)

This initial messianic build-up later crescendos in an emphatic choral union, during which several (mainly female) vocalists proclaim ecstatically:

Prabowo, our choice! Prabowo, our idol! Prabowo, our leader! Prabowo, our president! Prabowo, my only president!

This verging-on-blasphemous mantra is then repeated and re-harmonised throughout the song.

Among the other campaign anthems featured on Gerindra’s SoundCloud page are tracks such as “Choose Gerinda, Choose Prabowo”, “Gerindra Can Surely Do It”, as well as a politicised revamp of “Cucak Rowo”, a surprisingly popular Javanese ballad well-known for its highly sexualised and chauvinistic content.

In order to understand the source of Prabowo’s fetish for outlandish campaign material, I believe we need look no further than the powerful mass-media outlets currently at the disposal of his closest, old-guard rivals. Unlike Wiranto’s Hanura or Bakrie’s Golkar movement, for example, Prabowo’s fledgling Gerindra party does not own a major TV station, nor even a major radio station.

It is widely accepted that television remains the most influential medium when it comes to plugging candidates and policies in Indonesia, yet the major TV stations are invariably owned and dominated by well-connected  political figures, none of whom are currently allied with Gerindra. Prabowo’s alternative social media-based campaign can therefore be seen as an attempt to compensate for his party’s lack of conventional broadcast outlets, which have been monopolised by his rivals.

Such circumstances are far from ideal for Gerindra in the run-up to an election, but there are some obvious boons to be obtained from the propagandistic use of social media-based platforms. First of all, social media is rather uncharted territory for Indonesian politicking, so Prabowo’s experimental campaign methods have the advantage of lacking precedent. He is indeed pioneering the political usage of outlets such as YouTube and SoundCloud, plying both channels with colourful (and often costly) material despite the paucity of empirical evidence to suggest how these platforms can be best optimised, and despite the fact that the vast majority of Indonesian voters don’t have regular Internet access. At the very least this wins him the accolade of having dabbled in “creative and interesting campaign methods”, as one journalist wrote in an article for Kompas.com.

Second, and on a more fundamental level, it is practically beyond contention that social media space exists primarily for the purpose of self-promotion (or in Prabowo’s case self-aggrandisement). This means that unlike Hary Tanoesoedibjo’s RCTI or Global TV, for example, which sometimes have to pay lip service to the idea that TV broadcasting should be informative and politically impartial, Prabowo’s social media-based forays basically have free reign to be as extravagant, emphatic and fantastical as need be. Thus, with no reason to masquerade as a veracious or publically-oriented platform,  social media space is largely immune to the charges of “misuse” and “self-interest” such as those levelled at Hary by the KPK in February – and Prabowo is merely exploiting this discrepancy.

Consequently, however, in the eyes of us more sober observers, Prabowo appears to be the most unhinged of all the presidential challengers. Gerindra’s continued over-investment in social media-based canvassing is both a necessity borne of unfavourable circumstances, as well as a measure of Prabowo’s unbridled personal arrogance, best exemplified in the lyrics of Prabowo Presidenku. Worst of all (for the Gerindra spin doctors), each of their excursions into the realm of social media have so far have failed spectacularly to achieve their goal of attracting attention. The SoundCloud experiment is just the latest casualty in this respect, having only managed to garner a paltry 100 followers (as of April 28), despite its grand opening being enthusiastically reported in most of Indonesia’s main newspapers, including Kompas and Tempo.

At this juncture we may genuinely delight in the fact that Jokowi is currently leading the presidential race without the need of a string-pulled media empire, an entourage of melodious session-pros, or an overly flattering self-made documentary. In the Internet age we will most definitely see an increasing trend towards social media-based politicking, but the likelihood of the Prabowo approach being emulated in future looks thankfully rather limited.