With the Indonesian presidential and legislative elections four months away, the rest of 2023 will be busy with political campaigning.
The official campaign period will run for 75 days, beginning on 28 November 2023. But candidates at all levels will be looking for ways to boost their public profiles before then.
For decades, rallies have been a vital part of Indonesian political campaigns. While usually light on policy detail, these events allow parties and candidates to show the size of their support.
And since the 1970s, one tool that politicians have deployed to attract a crowd is dangdut music.
Dangdut in the New Order
The first party to use dangdut in political rallies was the United Development Party (PPP). In the 1977 and 1982 elections, the so-called “King of Dangdut”, Rhoma Irama, campaigned for PPP.
The Soeharto government quickly realised Rhoma Irama’s popularity and ability to gather a crowd threatened the authority of the New Order. In fact, Rhoma Irama criticised the New Order and was subsequently banned from state television station TVRI and some radio stations for ten years (1977-1987).
But by 1982, even the New Order’s political vehicle Golkar had resorted to using dangdut in its own campaigns. In the 1982 elections, when Rhoma Irama appeared for PPP, the “Queen of Dangdut”, Elvy Sukaesih, represented Golkar.
Golkar also recruited another famous female dangdut singer, Camelia Malik, for their campaign rallies. In an interview in 1997, she even actively encouraged fans to vote for the ruling party. In fact, the government and the only two political parties then allowed to exist (PPP and PDI) often played off dangdut singers against each other.
After 1986, Rhoma Irama was not active in political campaigns. But about a decade later, at the 1997 elections, he made the astonishing move to leave PPP and campaign for Golkar, along with other famous dangdut singers, including Nurjanah, Evi Tamala and Camelia Malik. Tempo magazine even described dangdut as the “official music” of Golkar’s 1997 campaign.
Dangdut after Reformasi
Following Reformasi – Indonesia’s transition to democracy – political candidates have continued to draw on dangdut during campaigns. Perhaps the most prominent post-Soeharto use of dangdut was the 2014 election. Rhoma Irama was briefly touted as a potential presidential candidate for PPP but ended up backing Prabowo Subianto, a position he repeated in the 2019 elections.
Another notable politician who relied on dangdut during political campaigning was the National Awakening Party (PKB) candidate for governor of East Java, Saifullah “Gus Ipul” Yusuf. In 2018, he invited the two most popular Dangdut Koplo singers, Via Vallen and Nella Kharisma, to back his campaign.
Dangdut millennials in demand in 2024
The 2024 election is still four months away but the three contenders – Ganjar Pranowo, Prabowo Subianto and Anies Baswedan –all look likely to use dangdut singers in their campaigns.
One dangdut singer attracting the attention of the candidates is Denny Caknan. Few other singers are as popular as Denny. He has an extraordinary 5,980,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, and his most popular song, “Kartonyono Medot Janji”, has had more than 272 million views.
In September 2022, Denny met the candidate topping most preliminary polls, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, at the Dieng Culture Festival. The pair took a photo together, and Denny even kissed Ganjar’s hand.
But a couple of months later Denny was invited to the office of another contender, current Minister of Defence, Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo said he likes Denny’s songs and there is a strong chance Denny will end up campaigning for Prabowo in 2023 and 2024.
Does this mean Prabowo is a dangdut fan? Not necessarily – merely that Prabowo and his team understand Denny is popular with young Indonesians, who will play a significant role in the outcome of the 2024 elections.
But Ganjar Pranowo has another card up his sleeve. Another millennial Dangdut singer, Ndarboy Genk, also supports the former Governor of Central Java – so much so that he even composed a song, “Surat”, about Ganjar’s integrity.
Ndarboy joined the Ganjar Pranowo Festival on 17 September 2023 in Solo, Central Java, where they were joined by the hip-hop dangdut group NDX Aka. NDX Aka have also declared their support for Ganjar in the song, “Rambut Putih”, a reference to Ganjar’s white hair.
And what about the King of Dangdut?
Rhoma Irama is yet to indicate who he will support, but he may shift allegiance again – this time to former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, who is popular among Islamic modernists, like Rhoma Irama.
Rhoma Irama supported Prabowo in past elections but he is expected to support Anies in 2024 after Prabowo switched allegiance to the Widodo government following the 2019 election.
Dangdut politics in 2024 is shaping up as a generational contest. Just like Prabowo, Rhoma Irama has been around the block before. But Denny’s fans are fanatical and in great supply. Who will win out?
When we look at the history of these elections, dangdut has hardly been a silver bullet. Rhoma Irama wasn’t much help to PPP under the New Order, and his support wasn’t enough to sway voters to Prabowo Subianto in 2014 and 2019. Likewise, Gus Ipul was beaten convincingly, despite the backing of two incredibly popular dangdut singers.
Will 2024 be the year Dangdut asserts itself on the ballot box? It is unlikely. But the very least, dangdut will activate one of Indonesia’s most critical political resources – big crowds.