Debunking the myths of Indonesia’s elections

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Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – There is an odd disconnect in the mainstream media about Indonesia’s elections.   International surveys and opinion polls show Indonesia’s reputation is badly tarnished by corruption in its political bodies and business community.  Yet when it comes to the country’s elections, there is hardly a whisper that something could be amiss.   How could the elections, where powerful vested interests are at play and the stakes are high, be so easily deemed as being fair and free from corrupt practices?

Yet that is exactly what happens in every election, the latest example being this past month’s local elections where five major provinces and home to more half the electorate went to the polling stations to elect governors, mayors and local representatives.  Party election monitors have reported numerous irregularities, but if the past is a guide to what we can expect, don’t expect the national election authorities to take those complaints seriously.   And the local media, as usual, will not bother to investigate whether or not stories of electoral shenanigans have any merit.

What, then, is the real story?  As a service to our readers, the prevailing myths about our elections should be challenged.  Here are just a few:

Myth Number One:  Indonesia’s elections are fair.  For those who prefer to take a hard look at the reality of Indonesia’s elections, one need only to understand the nexus between ruling coalitions, the business community, media and the polling industry.   Political leaders place loyal cadres in ministries and agencies that are responsible for organizing and implementing elections.  With few exceptions, ruling coalitions use their offices to bestow favors upon the business tycoons in control of the country’s wealthiest conglomerates.  These same conglomerates own the largest media outlets, which in turn use their monopoly over print and electronic media to tilt public opinion in favor of the political elite in power.   Pollsters, a small community of entrepreneurs who are given credence by the media, are similarly biased given the fact their paymasters are corrupt politicians.

And so the cycle continues endlessly:  corruption begets yet more corruption as rulers use their influence and access to state funds to place dishonest players in positions of power to tilt the elections in their favor, either through outright cheating, biased reporting or rigged polls.  Ignoring these facts should be challenged by any logical, thinking individual:  how could it be possible that Indonesia’s corrupt politicians suddenly turn honest when the time comes for elections?  The answer, of course, is they are not.

Myth Number Two:  Local Elections are a barometer of what to expect in presidential elections.  Reading the mainstream media, one could be easily misled into believing that winning parties in the 2018 local elections are a leading indicator of who will win next year’s presidential election.  In a recent Tempo magazine article, Yunarto Wijaya, head of the polling company Chartika Politika, was quoted as saying victories in the recent West Java, East Java, Central Java and North Sumatra provinces are keys to winning the 2019 elections.

What Mr. Wijaya and Tempo magazine conveniently forget to mention, however, was that most of the winning candidates were not party professionals.   They were also backed by large rainbow coalitions that, in the end, detracted from the candidates’ identity with any particular party.  In many cases, even ruling and opposition coalition parties joined hands in endorsing candidates.  Rizal Ramli, a prominent politician and former minister in the Jokowi administration, succinctly pointed out:  “Nine of the winning gubernatorial candidates were not party cadres.  This means voters are getting smarter, they are choosing candidates based on their reputations and track records, not party affiliations.”

Mr. Ramli’s analysis is supported by the facts.  Academic studies of voter behavior in past elections shows that barely 10 percent show loyalty to any particular party.  Favored candidates are based on their personalities and ability to tap into the electorates’ sentiments about local issues.

Of course, the ruling coalition and their friends in the media would like us to believe otherwise.  By doing so they hope to drive voter sentiment and financial backers into believing the results of this year’s local elections means Jokowi is a sure bet for 2019.

Myth Number Three:  Polls are reliable and unbiased.    Nothing could be farther from the truth.  As a case in point, one should refer to an article in the Jakarta Post, a favored source of news and analysis by the international community.

Just before the local elections, the Jakarta Post quoted polls stating West Java gubernatorial and vice-gubernatorial candidates Deddy Mizwar and Dedi Mulyadi, backed by Golkar and Partai Demokrat, were poised to win 41 percent of the vote. They also predicted Gerindra candidate Sudrajat, paired with Ahmad Syaikhu from PKS, would only garner 7 percent of the vote.  In the end, quick count estimates now reveal that Mizwar came in third, and the opposition Gerindra candidate came in second with close to 30 percent of the vote.

Striking differences in so-called polls and actual support for candidates on election day were seen in the case of the gubernatorial race for Central Java.  According to the think tank CSIS, Ganjar Pranowo and Taj Yasin, a ticket supported by PDI-P, PPP, Nasdem, Partai Demokrat and Golkar held a popularity of 66.5% before elections, while Sudirman Said and Ida Fauziyah, backed by Gerindra, PKB, PAN and PKS, had a popularity of only 15 percent.   According to the quick count, Sudirman ended up with 42 percent of the vote.

Such vast disparities between polling numbers and election results are legion in Indonesia.  They cannot be explained by statistical margins of error, which at most run between 5-7 percent when polls are done properly.  Rather, they can be explained by the games of money politics being played by the incumbent ruling parties.

We can only hope there will be growing awareness about the realities of Indonesia’s elections.   In the meantime, those who are watching Indonesia should be mindful that corrupt politicians have cheated in past elections, and will continue to cheat in future ones.  Neither the local media nor pollsters can be trusted to remain unbiased and untainted by the temptations of money politics.   Believing otherwise is pure naiveté.