The Jakarta Post
In the midst of the noise surrounding the launch of the country’s first MRT on Sunday, you could be forgiven for missing the news about the start of the three-week open campaign period. After all, why should people pay attention to open air rallies staged by political candidates, when the battle to win the hearts and minds of voters takes place somewhere else?
The rise of social media has made it easy for political candidates to reach voters in even the country’s remotest regions and with algorithms deployed by some of these media giants, politicians can target their audience with clinical precision.
The ease with which politicians — and rogue elements — can access social media has also made it easy for any party or individual to launch a smear campaign with such a massive impact as to change the course of an election. The so-called “Russian meddling” in the United States was allegedly carried out by an army of trolls posting fake news on social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.
As the country with the largest number of social media users, Indonesia is a hotspot for disinformation. Mafindo, a Jakarta-based organization working to counter fake news, reported that political fake news and disinformation shot up 61 percent between December 2018 and January this year. Analysts believe that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s slip in popularity ahead of the April 17 vote was due to the wide proliferation of fake news, some of which accused the incumbent of being anti-Islam and a communist.
It is certainly easy to question the merit of political rallies in the era of social media. But tell this to Donald Trump, who more than two years after his inauguration continues to insist that he had the largest crowd size ever, period.
Jokowi would certainly agree that crowd size matters. Analysts believed it was the gathering of hundreds of thousands of people at the Gelora Bung Karno sports complex in Central Jakarta just a few days ahead of voting day in July 2014 that tipped the balance and helped deliver a win for him.
Substance-wise there’s little that voters could learn from political candidates during rallies. Rallies are mostly filled with sloganeering and cheap entertainment. And more often than not, a political rally is a show of strength for political candidates in both presidential and legislative elections and when the race is very close, it could be the final push to win crucial votes. And with political tension reaching boiling point, open campaigning could create its own security problems.
The General Elections Commission (KPU) has come up with a plan to divide the country into several campaign zones, where candidates are not supposed to hold rallies in the same spot. In the past, this has worked well with no significant number of cases of violence being reported.
This election cycle, the pattern will likely stay and we can expect a peaceful open campaign season.