FIFTEEN years have passed since the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, and though Indonesians have grown older and wiser since then, it remains an extraordinarily young country.

In the city of Jogjakarta where I occasionally research and lecture, I am struck by the fact that the oldest person I see in the streets on some days happens to be me. Jogja is young, dynamic, vibrant and mobile — like the country itself.

But youth has always been a factor in Indonesian politics and history, dating back to the Sumpah Pemuda and the role that the young had played during the anti-colonial struggle of the previous century.

When we look at the figures who were instrumental to that great moment in the country’s history, one is struck by how young they all were: some were still in their teens when they took up arms in Indonesia’s fledgling nationalist army, some in their 20s and 30s.

Throughout the Suharto era this awareness of the power of youth was one of the factors that led the state to fear the young, and to maintain a tight grip on the universities and colleges of the country.

Yet despite the attempts to hold back the aspirations of the younger generation, the changes that have shaped Indonesia to become what it is today were mainly brought about by the mobilisation of the young: The “Salman movement” (so-called because it began around the compound of the Salman Mosque) led to the Islamisation of Indonesia’s youth, and brought to the fore future activist-intellectuals such as Nurcholish Madjid, certainly one of Indonesia’s most prominent Muslim intellectuals of the second half of the 20th century.

And up to the late 1990s student mobilisation on the campuses of the country — first underground, and later overt — led to the uprising that brought down the Suharto government in 1998.

Anyone who visits Jakarta today can go to the spot near Trisakti University where three university students were shot by the security forces at the height of the uprising of 1998. It was that moment of violence that proved to be the pivotal catalyst that led to the nation-wide uprising, again led by students and student movements. Young Indonesians had played such a visible role in the birth of Indonesian nationalism and the anti-colonial war. The post-colonial tumult had also been pivotal to the birth of the new Indonesia we see today.

Fifteen years on, however, the present generation of young Indonesians seems restless and tired of waiting for the fruits of reform: In Indonesia there has been a boom in the higher education industry, with scores of state-funded and private universities and colleges all over the country.

In the city of Jogja, I have seen two dozen of such higher-education institutions spring up in the space of a decade, creating an urban population whose age is younger than ever before.

The economic challenge facing Indonesia is thus enormous: With the expansion of education, what can be done to absorb all these graduates that emerge from their universities and colleges every year?

(A local presidential candidate has opined that in order to absorb all these graduates, Indonesia will need to reach and maintain a growth rate of eight per cent per year for the next two decades — a Herculean task, to say the least.)

As Indonesia heads to the polls next year, practically every party and every presidential candidate has begun to appeal to the young. The Gerindra party’s ad even makes it clear that it seeks young energetic Indonesians as the backbone to the organisation, and openly targets the young in its recruitment campaigns.
The Islamists of PKS (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera) have likewise been a campus-based cadre party, and it too seeks to win the youth vote. Then comes the Partai Demokrat Indonesia-Perjuangan (PDI-P), that had always had a solid and impressive youth base.

All the parties agree on one thing: Victory at the polls cannot be gained without winning the crucial youth vote, and by presenting youth-friendly candidates.

Next year’s election campaign in Indonesia, therefore, promises to be a hot, loud and rambunctious one, where the power of youth will be on full display. Indonesia is a young country, with a young population that now entertains middle-class hopes and aspirations.

Gone are the days when university students were content to be activists living on honest but meagre wages, dining on bakso and jus alpokat or teh manis. The young have seen the charms of market-driven modernity, aspire to fast cars and social mobility. Which party can deliver all this to a youth market made up of millions and millions of ambitious young hearts and minds? That will be the question that will determine Indonesia’s future.

Read more: Power of youth in Indonesian polls – Columnist – New Straits Times