Indonesian politics are slouching toward the 2014 election. Political polling is again being presented to the Indonesian public, although there is almost nothing new about the predictions of political infighting and the contenders who will face off in the contest for the presidency.
Polling has generally found that among the likely candidates, retired military general Prabowo Subianto and one of Indonesia’s richest men, Aburizal Bakrie, are the most prominent among the presidential candidates, with Prabowo in the lead over Bakrie as well as Megawati. All three are top party leaders who have long been roaming the country’s political sphere.
But rather than reviewing polling results, we wish to highlight trends in polling and their relationship to the general stagnation of democratization in Indonesia.
It is our view that in a stagnant situation, democratization is reduced to a mere electoral process, and political surveys focus tightly on the political process of elite competition. As a result, public political polling that only produces knowledge about elite politics will just strengthen the hegemonic discourse of an elitist form of democracy.
This vicious circle becomes even more inevitable when there are no institutions that can shift the center of gravity of public knowledge through alternative polling; for example, by focusing on policy positions, the accuracy of campaign statements or on popular participation itself.
Some good examples would be surveys conducted by Demos in cooperation with the University of Oslo, Gadjah Mada University and the University of Indonesia (UI) on Indonesia’s Post-Soeharto Democracy Movement (2003); Make Democracy Meaningful (2005); and Democracy Without Representation (2012). In a wider context, another example is offered by the American website politifact.com, which has been collecting and reviewing statements, stories and promises from elected officials and politicians — especially strategic figures like US President Barack Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney.
There are criticisms about the way they have been too balanced, while there are also ethical issues related to certain figures. However, this information is useful for voters and all citizens to increase their democratic participation.
Another example might be freedomhouse.org in which its surveys provide a comparative review of government performance in four touchstone areas: accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency. In Asia, a similarly good example of surveying comes from the Asian Democracy Index, and interesting new initiatives in Indonesia called socwave.sitti.co.id and tokohbicara.com.
Digital (social) media with its 2.0 model of user (people)-centricity has increasingly served the purpose of reflecting people’s views from the bottom up. Change.org, an open platform for social campaigns, has just entered Indonesia and provides people with the opportunity to sign and even start petitions according to their interests. These forms of media can offer much more democratic and accurate references to reflect the views of society.
Back to our topic about polling, predictions about the presidential contest will always have a high appeal and provide vital information for politicians, opportunists, observers and analysts, and the mass media. But such predictions do not contribute anything to the development of substantive democracy.
Over the last five years, one of the causes of the democratization logjam is that democracy is understood and practiced primarily as an elite-based electoral process. Almost all public energy is devoted to — if not actually supportive of — a system that closes the door to popular participation, and fails to create a mechanism for political control. An oligarchic party machine monopolizes all political access.
Unfortunately, this limited understanding of democracy is precisely reproduced by the polling agencies through surveys on the popularity and electability of the candidates. Such institutions only serve the needs of the candidates to provide a political map of the contest.
As an industry of political consulting that serves the needs of the candidates, pollsters are not interested in other aspects of democracy, such as the gap between the practice of oligarchy and popular representation.
They are also not able to provide a critical evaluation of the moral and ethical integrity of the candidates who hire them, based on criteria such as human rights records or their reputation in politics and business.
Furthermore, because there are those who suspect methodological manipulation in polling to put certain candidates in the lead, there is also an ethical critique to be made. It is also possible that some polling agencies are also working to take each other down a notch.
Various “controversial” candidates seem to be intended to provoke a negative reaction from the public. When the time comes, the agencies propose the candidate they support — or the one who pays them — as an alternative.
It is widely known that in a climate of party-centric, oligarchic democracy, only dominant elites have the potential to become candidates. The high costs, complex procedural games, and monopolization of resources allow only powerful candidates to win intra-party battles before the real race begins between the parties. This is precisely the problem. The candidates with such power only come from the same old elite circles.
Finally, in order to deepen the democratic process, therefore, polling should focus on the substance of democracy, structures and institutions; not pass off the same candidates as old wine in new bottles.
Usman Hamid is the chair of the board at Kontras (Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence) and Indonesian campaign director for change.org. AE Priyono was senior editor at Institute for Economic Study, Research and Development (LP3ES) and the Demos Institute for Democracy and Human Rights Studies. In early 2012, the authors founded the Public Virtue Institute