July 17, 2024

Public Offices and Discrimination Against the Youth

There’s nothing wrong with youth participating in politics. However, it becomes dangerous when they can control the state apparatus to legitimize their entry into the competition arena. This is dangerous because it reflects the characteristics of the New Order that once provoked public outrage. Outrage that ultimately planted the arrow of Reformasi in the heart of politics. The drama surrounding the vice-presidential candidate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, etches a shameful history in the timeline of Indonesian democracy. It is a moment that provides no inspiration whatsoever for the youth.

In normal circumstances, the phenomenon of Gibran becoming a vice-presidential candidate at a young age should have been a new source of energy for the youth. At the age of 36, Gibran became the youngest vice-presidential candidate in the history of Indonesia. Perhaps he could be compared to French President Emmanuel Macron, Ecuador President Daniel Noboa, Chilean President Gabriel Boric, President of Montenegro Jakov Milatovic, or Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele. They were elected as presidents at a relatively young age. However, none of them ran for office because they were ‘forced’ by those in power. Unlike Gibran, whose candidacy was legalized by his uncle through a decision of the Constitutional Court (MK).

Gibran’s uncle, Chief Justice Anwar Usman, has indeed given signals. Before the decision was pronounced, Anwar mentioned that Prophet Muhammad SAW appointed Usamah Bin Zaid, aged 17, as a military commander. He also cited Muhammad Al-Fatih leading the conquest of Constantinople at the age of 17. Subsequently, the Constitutional Court (MK) issued a decision stating that the age requirement for presidential and vice-presidential candidates can be below 40 if they have been or are currently serving as regional leaders. Anwar forgot that the examples he presented involved leadership guided by a higher power, some even of a dynastic nature. The forced justification does not align with the democratic principles we know. The MK decision seems to be tailor-made for Gibran.

If Anwar Usman is merely seeking justification, there are more extreme examples. For instance, Tutankhamun became Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt at the age of 9. Louis XIV ascended to the throne of France at the age of 4. Aisin Gioro Puyi or Henry Pu Yi became the last Emperor of China at the age of 3. Henry VI became King of England at around 8 months old. Alfonso XIII became King of Spain immediately after birth, succeeding his deceased father. They were all leaders at a very young age, but their power was predetermined even before their birth. That’s why it’s called monarchy; monos, singular, singular power. None of them needed elections. Not democracy.”

Erasing Anwar Usman’s Sin

The Constitutional Court’s decision is a stain on the judiciary, not in terms of its content but in the process of reaching the verdict. This led the Honorary Council of the Constitutional Court (MKMK) to declare Anwar Usman guilty on ethical grounds. As a judge, he violated the Principles of Impartiality, Integrity, Competence and Equality, Independence, as well as Decency and Propriety. Unfortunately, the legal world deems the Constitutional Court’s decision as final and binding. All legal experts agree that Anwar Usman’s decision cannot be overturned, not even by the Constitutional Court itself. The norm regarding the age qualification for presidential and vice-presidential candidates will remain in effect indefinitely, regardless of how peculiar it may sound or how grave Anwar Usman’s error may be.

But in reality, that viewpoint is highly debatable. The age requirement norm should still be open to correction. In the ‘retrial’ session, the Constitutional Court clearly delegated the regulation of this age requirement back to the lawmakers (open legal policy). Therefore, the only way to erase Anwar Usman’s sin is to return this policy to the hands of the President and the Parliament. The Election Law needs to be revised, and the step taken should be radical. Not to reinsert the Constitutional Court’s decision into it, but to eliminate the age requirements for presidential and vice-presidential candidates from the provisions. This can annul the crafty policy that rolls out the red carpet only for (former) regional leaders who are not yet old enough. This way, the historical sin in the constitutional realm can be erased.

Why erase it? Because, aside from saving our political face, in principle, this provision is discriminatory against the younger demographic. This rule is also entirely irrelevant to the need for bringing forth quality leadership. There is no specific study stating that youth tends to bring failed leadership in development compared to those who are not young. Furthermore, success and failure in politics are highly subjective. Leadership variables are not solely about age; they are diverse and complex, including leadership models or styles, experience, competence, individual characteristics, ethical concepts, performance, culture, and so forth. Scientific studies are not universally applicable.

That’s why, in various countries, the age requirement to become a presidential or head of government candidate varies. In Latin American countries, for example, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico have a requirement of 35 years. Argentina and Colombia set it at 30 years. In Asian countries, China has a requirement of 45 years, while Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines set it at 40 years, and India at 35 years. In European countries, Italy requires 50 years, Germany 40 years, and Russia 35 years, while France and the UK set it at 18 years. Europe has even proposed standardizing the minimum age for candidacy to 18, 21, 23, and 25 years in the 2024 Elections. The diverse age requirements in these countries clearly do not reflect that age is a determining factor for success in leadership.

What’s interesting is that the four countries with the highest Global Freedom Scores—Sweden, Finland, Norway, and New Zealand—only require a minimum age of 18 for their head of government. These four countries also have the highest scores in the Liberal Democracy Index worldwide. Advanced nations like Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada do not even set an age limit for their head of government. Generally, the age of 18 is the minimum age for citizens to access public office in these countries. An important note from these nations is that removing or lowering the age requirement for presidential or head of government candidates is not a new concept in democracy. It is not an obstacle to progress or a threat to the republic.

Delusion of Leadership Age

The age regulations for presidential and vice-presidential candidates in Indonesia are heavily influenced by history, social norms, and practical political considerations. Their existence stems from emotional reflections rather than mature academic considerations. Perhaps it is the age composition of the lawmakers that has consistently produced the figures of 35 or 40 as the minimum requirements. The aspirations of the youth are drowned out even before they are voiced. There is a failure in reasoning, assuming that maturity and wisdom can only be found in those of older age. It is this mindset that makes the struggle to open up access to public office for the youth a challenging endeavor.

In the public discourse regarding Gibran, the fears of many are fueled by the narrative of Prabowo’s health concerns. Having experienced two strokes raises doubts about Prabowo’s reliability in carrying out public duties in the future. If Prabowo-Gibran were elected as president and vice-president, and Prabowo, due to health reasons, was unable to lead for an extended period, with power then held by Gibran, the fate of the country is questioned. The competence of the youth in making crucial decisions is doubted. On one hand, this scenario seems plausible, given Prabowo’s historical health issues. On the other hand, the fears constructed in this scenario appear unfounded.

The presidency is a complex institution, not merely an individual. Although its symbolism is centered around the two chosen figures of the nation. However, this highest leadership comes with attributes of power and wisdom. It includes advisors, executing ministers, and armed policy guardians. So even if Gibran were to replace Prabowo for some specific reason, the leadership of the state and government would undoubtedly continue. Criticism of the ‘auto-pilot state’ voiced by the public against Jokowi is a simple indicator. Without the presence of Jokowi as a not-so-young generation, all government instruments are perceived to still operate in achieving development targets. Thus, attributing maturity in age to leadership is nothing but a delusion.

Jokowi’s leadership style tends to delegate many crucial decision-making processes to ministers or individuals he assigns. For instance, Jokowi has never personally attended UN General Assembly sessions, always sending representatives with various reasons. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in an open meeting, Jokowi questioned the steps to be taken by the assigned ministers. Rather than inquiring about potential solutions that could be adopted and then making decisions, this proves that even with limited visionary leadership, the government will still complete its term. It just needs to find the right and competent hands. Hence, the worst-case scenario for a young and idealess president is that the autopilot mode will be activated.

Give Space to the Youth

By distancing itself from the inspiration of Jokowi’s son as a vice-presidential candidate, it is time to give the youth a place to be involved in governing the country. Provide them access to test themselves in the contest for public office. Advanced countries may have realized the potential of the youth in politics and governance. Perhaps that’s what inspired them to lower the age limit for access to public office to 18 years, or eliminate it altogether. Human rights and the principle of accessibility may also be fundamental reasons. Most importantly, policymakers in Indonesia should consider these ideas in the future development of politics.

Until now, the youth have only been seen as a vote-getter. Yet in Indonesia, their numbers are significant, reaching 31.12% of the 204 million voters. This is because the General Election Commission uses the Youth Law to define the youth, which is the age range of 16 to 30 years. However, if the definition is maximized by including the age range that has been debated recently, which is 30 to 40 years, then the voting potential of the young group becomes much larger, reaching 51.82% of the Voter List. The youth vote becomes a determinant of power. The young demographic provides a golden ticket for Indonesian leadership. Unfortunately, this substantial figure is not reflected in the current composition of our power structure.

The youth in Indonesia rarely receive special attention in both roles and political programs. Even if there is any, it’s merely to satisfy the image of favoritism and to nurture votes. The sincerity in favoring the young group can only be demonstrated by removing the main obstacle for the youth in politics, which is age. To ensure that the youth are not disadvantaged by legal provisions, the age requirement for presidential and vice-presidential candidates should be eliminated. Not just for the presidency, but discriminatory rules like these should be removed from all public offices. If this idea is deemed too hasty, lowering the age to 18 is rational enough, given it aligns with the recognized legal capacity by the state. The rest can be left to the decision of the voters.

If indeed the political landscape favors someone with little knowledge, it only reveals the true face of our political parties. Considering political parties are leadership factories, championing various ideologies, this reality only clarifies the actual orientation behind the ideological veil presented to the voters. Parties are more concerned about the quantity of votes than the quality of leadership. All fingers should be pointed at political parties. Perhaps this is the momentum needed for political development to accelerate. Indonesian political parties should reform. However, it is too naive to equate the youth in public office with leadership quality. In reality, everyone has the same potential and capacity; the only difference is opportunity. []



Translated by Catherine Natalia