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Jakarta election results dent surveys' credibility

Publication Date : 16-07-2012


Pre-election surveys have become an entrenched feature of Indonesian politics in recent years, providing a fairly accurate picture of results.

But their credibility is being thrown into doubt as more polling outfits crop up and candidates seek to co-opt them to draw funding and support. Some pollsters are also not fully upfront about their backers.

Public doubt about their accuracy is also mounting, with the latest straw being the results of Jakarta's gubernatorial election last Wednesday.

All the surveys before the vote showed incumbent Fauzi Bowo with a clear lead and out-of- towner Joko Widodo a distant second. But preliminary results from the vote count have upset the polls, giving Joko 43 per cent of votes and Fauzi 34 per cent.

Surprise at the outcome has given way to soul-searching and scepticism.

"We don't need surveys. Put a ban on surveys," said Ichsan, a caller to a Metro TV discussion on the topic last Friday. Pollsters, he claimed, were only after fees from candidates who wanted to come out looking good in surveys.

"Pollsters have various interests. We cannot take it as it is," said Universitas Indonesia political scientist Maswadi Rauf.

"They may be inclined to conduct the polling in certain areas known to be the stronghold of a certain candidate."

Democrat MP Ramadhan Pohan sees one issue as the absence of a law regulating political survey outfits, which number over a dozen; hence, there is no curb on them spreading misleading information. He told The Straits Times: "The people are the judges. It's up to us to trust certain pollsters or not."

Survey agencies in Indonesia began to grow rapidly after the introduction of direct elections for governors, regents and mayors in 2005. Major pollsters today include the Indonesian Survey Institute, the Indonesian Survey Circle and Indo Barometer.

In the early years, surveys were rather accurate, even though sample sizes for polls on national voter preferences were as low as 1,000. Ironically, this made political aspirants interested in using them to their advantage.

Parties soon realised the importance of knowing who was popular and likeable, and hired pollsters close to political consultants or which provide political advice. Pollsters also play a role in political parties' internal elections.

In a recent essay titled "The Spin Doctor's Unsettling Rise In Indonesia", academic Andreas Ufen of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies claimed that, on a few occasions, pollsters have financed candidates in advance on the understanding that they will be paid back double the amount in the event of a victory.

"Since the newly elected candidate did not have the money to finance his own campaign, this creates an opportunity for corruption as he has to use his new position to pay back the debt," he noted.

But so long as there are no other means for candidates to determine their popularity, pollsters are likely to remain in demand.

Also, the jury is still out on whether polls influence how people vote. Some think voters tend to choose candidates who are predicted to win, while others see voters backing the underdog.

Muhammad Qodari, Indo Barometer's executive director, told The Straits Times that, in Jakarta, negative campaigns against the incumbent by the five challengers intensified in the weeks leading up to polling, causing a big change in voters' perceptions.

"Attacks on Fauzi Bowo heightened, highlighting his various weaknesses, so that many of those who had him in mind (when surveyed) jumped over to voting for Jokowi," he said, referring to the popular name for Joko.

Even up to the final days of campaigning, surveys cannot accurately capture sudden shifts in voter sentiments, he said.

Added Professor Maswadi: "Let's just treat polling as one of the many references we can look at. It's wrong to take survey results as something that is going to happen."


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