Bima Arya Sugiarto is the mayor of Bogor, a city just south of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta on the island of Java. Mayor Bima is not your usual politician; the slightly-built, 42-year-old former university lecturer and political pundit has been seen directing traffic to ease congestion—for which the city is notorious—mingling with ordinary citizens, and even riding a bicycle to work.
“I work seven days a week.” Bima sits in his office, which lies within a white-painted, Dutch colonial building just across from the lush Bogor presidential palace, where hundreds of white-spotted deer are roaming freely on its sprawling grass lawn.
“If I want my subordinates to work hard, I have to work harder than them,” he says. “If I want them to work fast, I have to work faster.”
Bima is among a new breed of young Indonesian politicians—mayors, governors and legislators—who won elections against the odds, despite a lack of political connections and financial backing.
These politicians—some Western educated—are seen as fresh, incorruptible faces in a country where the political system remains dominated by figures linked to a corrupt and autocratic past, even almost two decades after the end of the iron-fisted rule of the late president Suharto ushered in a democratic era of free elections.
“Young people idolize these politicians because they have personal affinity,” says Yunarto Wijaya, a political analyst at Charta Politika, a private pollster.
“They can talk to them, even joke with them, and the politicians are not averse to suggestions or criticism,” he says.
In 2013, a 43-year-old U.S.-educated architect, Ridwan Kamil, was elected mayor of Bandung, the country’s third largest city, despite his lack of experience in public office.
He has since built parks, relocated street vendors who blocked traffic, and drawn up plans to build a monorail and a cable car system in a city where infrastructure is bursting at its seams.
It is no coincidence that many of these young politicians are prolific social media users. They use Twitter and Facebook to engage and attract voters during campaigning and, after taking office, to seek input and respond to complaints, or even angry criticism from unhappy residents.
Indonesians are among the world’s most avid users of Facebook and Twitter. In 2012, Jakarta was the most active city for Twitter users in the world.
About 71 million of Indonesia’s 250 million people have access to the Internet, mainly through mobile devices, thanks to cheap, Chinese-made smart phones and affordable data plans offered by carriers.
“Politicians use social media to target the middle class, who may not make up the largest segment of the population, but are social influencers. Their opinions can sway others,” Yunarto says.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo is one of the politicians benefiting from the popularity of social media.
He was a little-known mayor of Solo, a mid-sized city in central Java, until he decided to join the race for Jakarta’s governorship in 2012.
During the campaign for the presidential election in 2014, the 53-year-old former furniture exporter was seen as an outsider because he was not a member of the political or military elite.
“Jokowi became big mainly because of social media,” Yunarto explains, using the nickname for Joko. “Netizens saw a new leader that brought hope, and their support snowballed into a nationwide phenomenon,” he says.
Bima, who holds a doctorate from the Australian National University, says he created a social media team to promote him three years before he joined the race for Bogor mayor.
“I learned how Barack Obama put his campaign machine into action, and how he used the media and communicated with people,” Bima says. “But I’ve never let someone else handle my personal social media accounts. Now I have more than 130,000 followers on Twitter; not bad for a person in charge of a city of one million people.
Honolulu had a population of approximately 984,000 in 2013. Honolulu’s current mayor, Kirk Caldwell, has shy of 3,000 followers.
Bima says direct elections, introduced in 2003 as part of wide-ranging reforms, has allowed people with few connections and little money like him to emerge as political contenders.
“As a political observer I spent time talking politics on TV,” he says. “Maybe people liked to hear my insights, but what improvements to their lives did I make?”
“I realized that, in this democratic era, I have better chances of successfully tackling issues such as poverty, health care, education, the environment and transportation as a local leader,” he says.
Since taking office in April of 2014, Bima says he has embarked on a digitization initiative that includes introducing an online tax payment system, online school registration and online complaint management systems. He says his office is also taking steps towards becoming completely paperless.
Bima has also banned the entire city hall staff from driving private motorized vehicles to work on Mondays. Local media outlets have published photos of him jostling in a public minivan, talking to other passengers, and riding his bicycle to work.
“There’s resistance to change in the bureaucracy, but I’m seeing also a lot of support. Creating an efficient bureaucracy cannot be achieved overnight,” he comments.
Bandung Mayor Ridwan, who has more than 1 million followers on Twitter, has likewise cultivated a folksy image on social media to go along with reformist policies.
Ridwan jokes and banters with his Twitter followers, and sometimes engages critics with jest and sarcasm.
Before joining politics, he was one of Indonesia’s most prominent architects with projects in both Asia and the Middle East.
“Things are a lot more complex than when I was an architect,” Ridwan says of his current occupation. “As a mayor, I’m responsible for the direction of the city; so I need to improvise a lot.”
Bandung, a city of 2.5 million people, has been transformed from the sleepy town once known as the Paris of Java during the Dutch colonial era, into a bustling culinary and fashion hub.
Traffic in Bandung almost grinds to a halt every weekend as people from Jakarta and surrounding areas flock there for weekly getaways.
“I want to make Bandung the center for creative industries in Indonesia,” says Ridwan, who obtained a master’s degree in urban design at at the University of California, Berkeley.
He adds that, “This is the right place for productive and creative young people to engage in creative economics—making films, music and designs—because 60 percent of the population is under 40 and the climate is cool.”