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Jakarta Post

Insight: The effects of our personalized election

  • Salvatore Simarmata


Jakarta   /   Sat, April 20, 2019   /   09:42 am
Insight: The effects of our personalized election It is now the personality of the candidate that contributes more to the votes. (Shutterstock/zombiu26)

All reputable quick-count results show that the incumbent presidential candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo gained the upper hand over his rival Prabowo Subianto with a vote share of 55 percent and 45 percent, respectively. Compared to 2014, the official vote share is nearly the same at 53.15 percent for Jokowi and 46.85 percent for Prabowo .

For Jokowi, the insignificant developments of votes for him suggest little impact from five years of his term, which has provided free access for so many public goods, including education and a relatively stable economy.

The result, though from quick counts, has been very much driven by personality rather than ideology or policy positions between the candidates. Unfortunately, it does not do service for our future democracy. If Jokowi had run against a new face with a good personality, experience and attractive image, the vote share might have been different. Regarding this point, Prabowo failed to take a lesson from his old ally, former president Megawati 

True, vote choice is influenced by so many factors, including sociological and psychological dimensions. However, these factors have not set the two candidates significantly apart from each other at the poll. Surveys such as that from last March by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) show Jokowi and Prabowo actually share voters more or less of the same social economic background.

Economic conditions have not been much better, even though most people surveyed have said they are satisfied with the work of the incumbent. Thus, there are still some other issues in the economy that have not been addressed. Further, party affiliations have severely faded compared to earlier elections, as surveys have shown.

It is now the personality of the candidate that contributes more to the votes. The CSIS survey found the most significant character of presidential candidates in the minds of voters was that they were perceived as “simple/close to the people/generous” with 30 percent (CSIS, March). Until March, the approval rating of Jokowi was 71 percent and the perception of citizens in regard to economic conditions was better than last year and deemed in good condition for the whole term in office, according to a survey by Indikator in March.

People see more candidates as an individual person rather than as a party’s representatives who put forward ideologically distinctive policies. Political ideology is not something that is inherently different among our political parties. In contrast, they are converging, except for Pancasila versus Islamic distinctions, as scholars have noted.

Similarly, the presidential debates failed to divulge striking differences and serious proposals for problem solving from both camps about the selected themes for the debates.

The only visible differences were personal attributes such as social status, family, professional background, communication style and relations with others, including the press.

In particular, although Prabowo had shown a quite significant change in his communication style during this second race, he still showed similarities to his 2014 style, such as rebuking journalists, which is not a good move for personal branding.

He also displayed too much emotion; which is good for persuasion and communication clarity, but too much emotion suggests one is not in control.

There are three critical consequences of this personalization of politics on our democracy. First, personalization of the election has given way for massive smear campaigning. Smear campaigning is directed toward individual backgrounds such as religion, family, values and characters, which often lead not only to mudslinging but hate speech

If we had more of a policy-based presidential election, attacks would have been mostly directed at the policy proposals from each candidate. Only then attacking becomes fruitful for electoral discourse.

Second, sooner or later political parties will get lazier. Parties would not really take it seriously and invest a lot in drafting policy proposals. They would certainly not invest in speeding up regeneration, resorting to the easier selection of potential leaders from outside of the party.

This tendency will again focus more attention on personality rather than policy that the party claims it will implement if it wins the race. The election becomes less competitive because the battle rests on the less debatable personalities rather than policies.

Third, the result is that politics becomes more of a private matter rather than a public affair. The way political cooperation and competition occur become heavily influenced by personal likes and dislikes among political elites and supporters that could cause perennial identity-based polarization.

As researcher Mauro Calise argues, the affinity to rely on personal rather than collective and impersonal attributes such as policy and public goods is a sign of stunted social cohesion and increased volatility.

Jokowi’s win reflects an entrenched staple of the personalization of politics in Indonesia, which could lead to a declining democracy. It is time to shift the gear toward policy-based elections by selecting presidential candidates or other executive election candidacies of more or less the same personal traits, experience and leadership. Then, the race will rest on policy. In 2024, we should see this shift, where parties nominate policy-oriented candidates.


The writer is a PhD student at the Australian National University, Canberra.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.