Crooked polls

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – Prior to the 2014 presidential election, with his simple dress, rolled-up sleeves and easy demeanor, Jokowi came across as an honest, down-to-earth politician who, when he served as a local leader, seemed to be a champion of reform and good governance.  As a political brand, Jokowi’s persona worked well, and in the end a sufficient lot of the electorate found him appealing enough to vote him into office.

Almost five years later, Indonesians are being asked to reassess their measure of the man.  Those who remember his numerous promises on the 2014 campaign trail, most of which have been unfulfilled, are left questioning his credibility.   Stagnant economic growth and high unemployment rates have made it harder for the average family to make ends meet.  Two of the president’s biggest failures, namely to deliver on his promises of better and more affordable health care and education, are black marks that lesser advantaged Indonesians will surely take into account.  Last but not least, there is now a large cloud hanging over Jokowi’s carefully cultivated image of honesty:  after being caught spinning numerous lies and half-truths in the presidential debates, many voters have come to the conclusion he is somebody entirely different from what they were initially led to believe.

Yet, in spite of Jokowi’s shortcomings, which should imply he is vulnerable and could easily lose his bid for a second term in office, an alternate narrative—of a popular president leading in the polls—is taking place.

What, exactly, is going on?

For one, media tycoons are firmly behind Jokowi.  The mainstream media has unerringly granted Jokowi a pass or underplayed reports of the president’s failures and deceptions, all of which provides the fodder needed to construct a storyline that suggests Jokowi is both popular and invincible.   As we have written before in these pages, this is not a huge surprise for those who understand the cozy, reciprocal relationship between media owners and the palace.

A narrative, however, has particular import and power to influence when numbers supports it.  And in politics, those numbers lie within the hands of pollsters.   Entrusted by the public to be impartial and using scientific-based methods to conduct their surveys, political pollsters should be able to offer us reliable statistics on voter sentiments and preferences.  But what if they are neither scientific nor impartial?

In the world of Indonesian polls, a healthy dose of skepticism is definitely warranted.  So-called professional pollsters have consistently cooked the numbers in favor of ruling parties and their candidates, more often than not in return for financial rewards.   This holds for the upcoming presidential election, as well, where many pollsters are predicting Jokowi will easily win—in some cases, by a margin as large as twenty percent over his opponent, Prabowo Subianto.

Here, the age-old admonition of caveat emptor should be heeded.  The inaccuracy of local polls in past elections, which are rarely audited by the media to gauge their reliability, illustrates just how badly pollsters have performed and why they can’t be trusted.

As an example, just before the last year’s local elections, polls projected West Java gubernatorial and vice-gubernatorial candidates Deddy Mizwar and Dedi Mulyadi, backed by Golkar and Partai Demokrat, were poised to win over forty percent of the vote. They also predicted Gerindra candidate Sudrajat, paired with Ahmad Syaikhu from PKS, would only garner seven percent of the vote.  The election results? Mizwar came in a distant third place, and the opposition Gerindra candidate came in second with close to thirty percent of the vote.

Striking differences in pollsters’ predictions and actual support for candidates on election day were also seen in the case of the gubernatorial race for Central Java.  Practically all of the pollsters predicted Ganjar Pranowo and Taj Yasin—a ticket supported by PDI-P, PPP, Nasdem, Partai Demokrat and Golkar—held a popularity of sixty-six percent before elections, while Sudirman Said and Ida Fauziyah, backed by opposition parties Gerindra, PAN and PKS, had a popularity of only thirteen percent.   In the end, Sudirman won more than forty percent of the vote.

A similar bias in polls in favor of ruling coalition candidates was recorded across the board before the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial race, where the Anies Baswedan-Sandiaga Uno ticket, backed by Gerindra, was polled in the run-up to the election to be far behind with only twenty percent support from voters.  When the Anies ticket finally won with a landslide victory with fifty-eight percent of the vote, one could reasonably ask:  how can such pollsters be afforded any credibility?   After all, such vast disparities between polling numbers and election results cannot be explained by statistical margins of error, which at most run between five and seven percent when polls are done properly.

Yet bizarrely, in spite of the facts, the pollsters have retained their credibility, at least in the eyes of the media.   Polls predicting Jokowi will be re-elected are being dutifully reported in national newspapers and television stations, and for those who have forgotten just how badly the pollsters performed in previous elections and remain ignorant of media bias, it seems like a plausible story with a happy ending.

This raises the question, for what purposes (besides the money being made by unethical pollsters) are manipulated surveys being held in the first place?  Studies of voter behavior in electoral democracies have revealed that once a person has made up his or her mind, polls make little difference in their preferences.  But polls can make a big difference if they predict a voter’s favored candidate is bound to lose, which could convince one to stay at home on election day.  And when one factors in the behavior of undecided voters, who are known to be more easily persuaded to cast their ballots for the predicted winner, such manipulated polls means a systematic lie can turn into reality.

What this means for the outcome of the 2019 presidential election is anybody’s guess.  Internal polls conducted by political parties, which are not used to sway public opinion but rather give candidates a more realistic sense of their chances of winning, are showing that Jokowi’s popularity has been on a steady decline over the past few months and the gap between the president and Prabowo are in single digits.  Those same polls are also revealing that as much as forty percent of the electorate could swing in either direction on election day.   Crooked polls or not, Jokowi could easily find himself out of a job in 2019.

For future elections, there is an urgency for the Indonesian government to oversee the activities of polling companies to ensure they behave in a more ethical manner.  Until now, these opinion shapers have acted with impunity in spite of the injuries they inflict on our electoral democracy.  In an age where even the slightest insult or criticism against politicians can be twisted to be portrayed as a hoax or slander with potential legal consequences, surely pollsters should be held accountable, preferably to an even higher standard than the average citizen.  If not, then our elections will continue to be tainted by lies fabricated to masquerade as the truth—the very definition of a hoax itself.