From rock stars to lawmakers: How celebrities are shaking up Indonesia’s politics

Ahmad Syamsudin and Tria Dianti
From rock stars to lawmakers: How celebrities are shaking up Indonesia’s politics A street food vendor passes by a poster of a list of candidates for members of the regional representative council of Jakarta province in the February 2024 election, Jakarta, Dec. 20, 2023.
[Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

He is a rock star who performs songs that millions of Indonesians love, and now he aims to be a lawmaker who shapes the nation’s future.

Elfonda “Once” Mekel, former lead singer of one of Indonesia’s most popular bands, Dewa 19, is among the roughly 80 celebrities hoping to use their popularity and charm to secure a seat in the national parliament in the Feb. 14 general election.

“I believe I can contribute well to the development of Indonesia,” Elfonda, who’s running for a seat in Jakarta with the ruling Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), told BenarNews.

He said he wants to focus on issues such as poverty, unemployment, health care, and social assistance, which he believes are often neglected by the government.

“I don’t agree with just relying on popularity,” he said.

Indonesian political parties have a long history of recruiting famous faces to boost their chances of winning, but their success rate is often underwhelming –  18 of 23 won in 2014, while only 14 of 80 secured a seat in 2019.

Elfonda “Once” Mekel, a candidate for parliament and former vocalist for top-rated band Dewa 19, sings at a campaign event for overseas Indonesians in Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 5, 2023. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

The rise of celebrity candidates is a global phenomenon: from Arnold Schwarzenegger in California to Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine. In Indonesia, the phenomenon is especially pronounced, as parties tap into their popularity and influence to sway voters.

“Generally, celebrities have a significant public presence and a large fan base, which is a strategic move to garner grassroots voter support,” Wasisto Raharjo Djati, a political analyst at the National Research and Innovation Agency, told BenarNews.

“Moreover, celebrities often have the financial means to fund their campaigns, offering a shortcut for political parties facing budget constraints to finance all their candidates.”

Some of the celebrities have proven themselves to be capable politicians, such as Rieke Diah Pitaloka, Dede Yusuf and Nurul Arifin.

Rieke, from Bekasi, West Java, is a former actress who is now a senior lawmaker at PDI-P, the ruling party of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Dede, a former model and actor, has been in various parliamentary or statewide offices for more than a decade.

Nurul, also a former actor and model, is deputy chairperson of the Golkar Party, which is backing the presidential frontrunner, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.

Dede Yusof (left), a former model and actor who is now an established politician, visits a school in Kendal, Central Java, Indonesia, in a photograph posted on his Instagram account on Nov. 16, 2023. [Via Instagram/ddyusuf66]

But Arya Fernandes, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said those celebrities who have succeeded are rare exceptions.

“Not all celebrity entries are created equal, with some possessing commendable qualifications and a genuine interest in politics,” he said.

Some analysts and observers have expressed concern that the influx of celebrities with little experience in public affairs in national elections could undermine the quality and credibility of the legislatures.

By selecting famous faces as their nominees, Arya said, parties are prioritizing “pragmatism over competence,” which may have ramifications for the parliament’s performance.

Varying platforms

Nurul Arifin, a former actor and model who is deputy chairperson of the Golkar Party, speaks at a campaign event for the February general election in a photograph posted on her Instagram account on Dec. 3, 2023. [Via Instagram/ na_nurularifin]

Anang Hermansyah, a rock singer who has been in the spotlight for more than three decades, ran for office successfully from Bogor, West, Java, in 2014 but did not run for re-election in 2019.

Now, he is ready to make a comeback in politics, but this time around he will contest as a PDI-P representative and not a National Mandate Party (PAN) one.

“It is common sense that the public needs health infrastructure, road infrastructure, education, social assistance, and social safety nets. That’s where I [want to] to solve problems in my electoral district,” he told BenarNews.

Muhammad Farhan, previously a TV host and actor, is contesting for a second time as a candidate in West Java for the National Democratic Party.

Muhammad Farhan, a former TV host and actor who’s running from West Java, Indonesia, gestures at a campaign event in a photograph posted on his Instagram account on Dec. 1, 2023. [Via Instagram/hmfarhanbdg]

He said he wanted to ensure freedom of expression and opinion in the media. He also believes in socio-economic equality.

“Politics is one of the ways to provide equal chances for everyone to prosper together,” he said.

“Freedom of expression is still not 100% guaranteed – either because of persecution by the public or the efforts of the authorities to muzzle.”


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