By Togi Pangaribuan
June 27 2014
Negative campaigning is the name of the game. In the euphoria of the presidential election, we have consistently read how smearing and attempts at character assassination with the ultimate goal of decreasing the opponent’s electability has become the go-to plan.
As they are usually incorrectly used interchangeably, for ease of reference I will call them “malicious campaigns”. We have seen malicious campaigns used before; this is not the first time. Most recently in 2009, they were used against then incumbent candidate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his running mate Boediono. They were said to not be fit to run Muslim-majority Indonesia simply because their spouses did not wear Hijabs.
There were also rumours of the First Lady being Christian because her first name is Kristiani. In 2014, probably due to the increase of the use of social media, 24-hour news channels and Internet portals, we have witnessed a plethora of negative campaigns.
We have seen Joko “Jokowi” Widodo labelled as a Christian, labelled as merely a puppet of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) elites who will go against conservative Islamic values should he be elected president. We have also seen Prabowo Subianto accused of being of Jordanian citizen. Most notably perhaps, we have seen Obor Rakyat tabloid survive four editions filled with unproven accusations against Jokowi.
Do they work? The simple answer is no. Notable foreign researchers have noted that “All told, the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes, even though it tends to be more memorable and stimulate knowledge about the campaign. Nor is there any reliable evidence that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout”.
This has been affirmed by research and experts at home as well. There has been no reliable evidence that Jokowi’s electability has gone down and Prabowo’s has gone up or vice versa due to the respective campaign attacks against them.
One expert even suggested that negative campaigns could even raise electability due to the Indonesian people’s propensity to being sympathetic of perceived victims of malicious campaigns.
There is a reason why malicious campaigns are always carried out, akin to fast food, it is easy to prepare and easy to consume. However, just like fast food, the rampant use of malicious campaigns is not good for the politics and development of Indonesia. Malicious campaigns could even nurture a culture of anti-intellectualism and as Isaac Asimov eloquently put it, “it will nurture the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.
We do not want to have ignorant voters, we want voters that care and scrutinize their potential leaders for the feasibility of their programs and ideas, and not just on the grounds of their religious affiliations or false rumours about their citizenship.
Malicious campaigns are also easy to use given the polarization of media ownership and their owners’ explicit backing of the candidates of their choosing. The relationship between business and politics in Indonesia should worry us. There have been a significant number of powerful and wealthy businessmen rapidly ascending into Indonesia’s premier political scene. This is not automatically a bad thing, but we could learn a thing or two from the United States’ unpleasant experience when you cannot keep money from corrupting politics.
Repercussions from the 2008 US Supreme Court case of Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission should provide ample warning to us. When the decision was handed down, political action committees supporting Barack Obama and Mitt Romney promised to maximize negative attacks on their opponent.
Citizens United, a non-profit organization, had made a movie criticizing presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The movie was set to air before the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Under then US election laws, it would have been illegal to do so within 80 days of an election and within 30 days of a primary.
The Supreme Court decided that preventing a group of people such as Citizens United from expressing their opinion was a violation of free speech. This ruling has made it possible for corporations and labour unions to advocate a political view or a political candidate at any time with any amount of money that they please. Directly giving money to the candidates or coordinating with their campaigns, however, is still prohibited.
Citizens United has been deemed as “breaking American democracy” because it has let rich corporations, through special political action committees, push their self-interests and has corrupted the influence of money in politics. This has made the US legislature dependent on private funding and advancing the interests of the corporations that have backed them financially, forgetting the interests of their constituents and the greater interest of the country. Movements are now spreading across the US to reverse the Citizens United ruling.
Negative campaigns, vote-buying and the corrupt influence of money in politics are real and they are vastly increasing. Should Indonesia continue its massive use of direct elections to elect public officials? It is prudent for us to expect the rise of these evils of elections.
As admitted by the General Elections Commission (KPU), Indonesia’s election laws are outdated and out of sync, they need to be revised and they need to be compiled. Heightened standards for transparency in funding and sanctions against malicious campaigns should be the priority should the revisions take place.
This is of course not the silver bullet to the solution but it would be a good start. Democracy among uninformed and unprepared voters will definitely create a less than ideal leader. This is a price I think is too high for us.
Togi Pangaribuan is a graduate of Harvard Law School.