Media Can Sway Public Opinion, But Not as Effectively as an Underperforming Party
If anyone was wondering why President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono seemed frustrated in his speech during the Democratic Party convention last week, the results of a pair of recent surveys from the Soegeng Sarjadi Syndicate and the Indonesian Survey Circle should help.
Both surveys showed that the Democratic Party’s popularity was declining rapidly. The Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) noted that support for the Democratic Party had dropped from 13.7 percent in January to 11.3 percent, while the SSS put the Democratic Party’s support at 10.7 percent.
Both surveys ominously predicted that the Democratic Party would become nothing more than another middle-tier party, should the trend continue.
Previously, Yudhoyono acknowledged that the Democratic Party’s popularity had taken a major hit. However, he blamed media bias for this turmoil, declaring that the Democratic Party was much less corrupt than its rivals and yet it received the biggest scrutiny, which in turn dragged the popularity of the party through the mud.
After the surveys were released, Democratic Party officials, notably Nurhayati Ali Assegaf, the recently-appointed chairwoman of the Democratic faction in the legislature, questioned the methodology of the surveys and wondered if the surveys were biased.
Yudhoyono and the Democratic officials might have a case that the media and survey methodologies are biased — but given the Democratic Party is being sullied by the ongoing Muhammad Nazaruddin corruption scandal, it cannot be denied that the party has been helping fuel the negative perceptions.
TVOne and MetroTV, the most influential stations in Indonesia, are owned by the leaders of Golkar and the National Democrat (NasDem) Party, respectively. Neither station is shy about advocating the political views of its owners.
They have the ability to shape public opinion on certain subjects, and their coverage in many cases can be considered hostile to the Democrats and Yudhoyono. MetroTV pretty much enjoys rubbing salt in the wounds of the Democrats by repeating the Democratic Party’s mantra, “Say No to Corruption” on its coverage on the ongoing Nazaruddin corruption scandal.
But even with that influence, neither station has been able to propel their respective owners to the front of the presidential candidacy pack.
The SSS and LSI listed Prabowo Subianto and Megawati Sukarnoputri as the two top vote-getters, respectively, should the presidential election be held today. Surya Paloh (NasDem) and Aburizal Bakrie (Golkar) trail. The Democratic Party could make a strong case that the polling organizations are biased, since it is possible that they were paid by either Prabowo, Megawati or both, in order to provide favorable results.
Pollsters have admitted, privately, that there are occasionally incentives to create favorable results in order to either maintain a business relationship with a candidate, or to perform as a public relations tool. Those polling organizations, however, generally fold after the elections because their predictions strayed too far from the actual results.
On the other hand, the polling results from the LSI and SSS are generally close to the actual numbers. While there are some differences in the results, they are often the result of a variation in sampling methods that generally fall within the margin of error.
There are some external factors influencing the results, notably the fact that the presidential election is still some time away and most of the prospective candidates aren’t that well known. Prabowo and Megawati, however, have been on the ballot several times already.
These surveys were useful for the insight they brought to the table and they essentially confirm each other’s findings. The LSI bluntly stated that Yudhoyono’s passivity hurt the Democratic Party’s prospects. The SSS survey stressed that “decisiveness” was the most popular attribute among voters, meaning that Yudhoyono’s inability to rein in the extremist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and to safeguard human rights and the freedom to worship also took its toll.
This could be seen in the results of both surveys, where the biggest beneficiaries of the Democratic Party’s collapse in public support are Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar, not the religious parties.
The media is important and able to sway public opinion but there is a limit to how much influence it has. It seems more likely that Yudhoyono and the Democratic Party have themselves to blame for these abysmal results.
The media and the surveyors would not have been in a position to do much harm to the president and the Democrats had Yudhoyono acted with vigor and determination in rooting out corruption and cleaning up his party, while acting decisively to stamp out extremist groups and religious intolerance in the country.
Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan).