11 July 2024

Indonesia holds its presidential election on Wednesday but candidates are looking to another country’s export to win votes — K-pop, the South Korean sensation that has swept much of the world.

At an event held by young volunteers for candidate Anies Baswedan in the capital Jakarta, die-hard K-pop fans had photoshopped his face with sunglasses on merchandise fashioning him in the style of a South Korean pop star.

In Indonesia, megastars BTS and other K-pop groups are extremely popular, giving politicians another route to appeal to young people. Millennials and Gen Zers make up more than half of the country’s electorate.

Hundreds gathered in a noisy crowd on Thursday evening, some holding posters, paper fans and stickers emblazoned with Baswedan’s face in a K-pop style.

“It is funny, very contemporary,” said tax analyst Nurul Hidayah, a supporter of Baswedan. “Usually the campaign materials are old-fashioned, too boring. But this is very fun.”

Others had put his cartoon image on T-shirts and his campaign’s name on neon products. Baswedan is battling front-runner and Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo for the presidency.

A man holds a t-shirt bearing an image depicting the face of Presidential candidate Anies Baswedan, with his name changed from “Pak” (Mr in Indonesian) Anies, to a more Korean-sounding name “Park Ahn Nice”.//AFP

The country’s own BTS fanbase — known as ARMY — has held online fundraisers to support political causes before, and now candidates are trying to rally them behind their own campaigns.

Baswedan has replicated K-pop stars’ livestreams on the campaign trail, posting videos of himself on TikTok answering supporters’ questions from his car. It has earned him the nickname “Park Ahn Nice” online, which is a modified phonetic Korean translation of “Sir Anies”.

“I think it is a good strategy for them to use the K-pop trends,” said 32-year-old entrepreneur Hafidz Surapranata. “This campaign is really unique.”

— Voter awareness —

Some K-pop fans were no longer “allergic” to talking about politics because of the campaign tactics, according to digital anthropologist Karlina Octaviany. “It is effective in gaining voters’ awareness,” she said.

A Twitter account set up by alleged K-pop fans to promote Baswedan’s campaign has amassed more than 120,000 followers.  Subianto has already taken to social media to present himself as a dancing “cute grandpa” to soften his image.

His Gerindra party last year called on fans to wear merchandise from K-pop group Blackpink in front of posters of Subianto. Another candidate, Pranowo, caused a storm last summer when he asked social media followers which K-pop act he should invite to the country.

Fans quickly rounded on him, accusing him of trying to ride the coat-tails of the K-pop craze. “This is not related to politics,” he posted on X.