By Akhmad Kusaeni
Polling mania is a perfect phrase to describe how flourish public opinion polls related to elections in Indonesia nowadays. Polling is not monopoly of polling organizations or survey institution anymore. Print media, radio and television stations are conducting polling. They poll the public on a variety of subjects, from election related polls to military coup to whether Saddam Hussein is still alive.
“We enter a new trend here: polling mania! Everything is polled, everyone can do polls,” said Muhammad Husain, Director of Department of Survey of LP3ES, a well- known and respectable polling organization in Indonesia.
Media subjected their readers and viewers to a countless barrage of polls during campaign and election days. Polling by SMS (short message services) is becoming new phenomenon in Indonesia. SMS polling comes up with unique and interesting results that certain presidential candidates are always the top rank.
Hidayat Nurwahid, Chairman of Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Justice and Prosperous Party), is well known as “President Chosen by SMS”. It is unbelievable, because Partai Keadilan Sejahtera is a small party and Hidayat Nurwahid is a newcomer politician. The prominent candidates from the big parties, such as incumbent President Megawati Soekarnoputri and House Speaker Akbar Tanjung of Golkar Party, are underdog on the polls.
Every time a poll result is announced, the public becomes shock, ambiguous, and confused. In one poll, Megawati popularity leads other rivals with significant percentage. In other poll, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) of Democrat Party, is the most popular presidential candidate.
“Of course, everyone here wants to know who’s winning the election and becomes our new president. But, too much polls will kill you,” Husain quoted Freddy Mercury’s song “Too much love will kill you”.
Indeed, too many polls with different results seemed like overkill
Evolution of Opinion Survey in Indonesia
Polling was introduced to Indonesians only after 1970. But, only a government agency, the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS), could do the polls. Non-governmental polling centers and private polling organizations cannot freely conduct the polls. They had to get permit from the government to do the polls. It was not easy to get the permit, because of the government’s tight control with severe sanction againts the polling violators.
PT. Suburi, a private polling organization, was shut down and its chairman was arrested in 1972. The government charged them for fomenting subversion againts the state because PT Suburi conducted the polling (to get public opinion) on performance of the New Order regime. When, the result of polling did not serve government’s interest because the majority public thought the performance of government was poor, the New Order regime was very upset.
According to Dhaniel Dhakidae, expert on political science, the New Order Regime didn’t like judgment from any institution outside the government. There was a wish that the New Order regime want to perform as perfect as possible in front of their people. So, there should be no room for views or opinion that might damage its positive image. Under these circumstances, polling and polling centers were not popular and not welcomed.
Of course, this situation is different from that in developed countries, such as the United States of America (USA). Theoretically, polling is considered as a general will or a mandate from the people. In Indonesia, polling was considered as a political disorder or a political desertion. That is why under more than 30 years of the New Order regime, polling activities to measure public opinion were not popular and something that pollster had to avoid.
Only after the downfall of Soeharto’s regime in May 1998, polling activities were flourishing. With the more political transparency and democratization in reformasi era, polling has become a new fashion in day-to-day politics in Indonesia. Something untouchable and taboo to be discussed publicly, such as corruption in the elites and first family, the role of the military, or the constitutional problems, now become “a political discourse” of public and political elite. Polling has enriched public sphere.
Now, a few dozen organizations and media use polling as integral part of their activities. Some of them, like Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) makes polling its core-business. So far, there have been no cases of media and polling centers shutdown for publishing polling results no matter how sensitive its contents. Thus, polling has found it momentum again as discourse medium after 32 years in the very tight control of the government.
Measuring public opinion has become much easier than it was in the early days when most polling was done in person and door to door. Today, drawing a random sample with a telephone survey is more efficient and less expensive. The result is a dramatic increase in polls activities.
Basically, everyone and every institution have the right to do polling as long as it has legitimacy and use scientific measures. The problem is many polling in Indonesia do not have clear methodology and trend to mislead and fool public. Some television stations conduct polling by SMS to measure public sentiment on, for instance, the presidential candidates.
“SMS polling is misleading and manipulative. A presidential candidate might mobilize his or her mass and supporters to send SMS to polling center. In this election days, SMS polling is very dangerous because it might influence voter’s preferences,” said Enceng Shobirin Nadj, a political analyst.
Nadj believes that SMS polling is a way of campaign managers to introduce their presidential candidates. The goal is to market the candidate to the public. Unfortunately, this is not educating voters, but manipulate voter’s preference.
Executive Director of Center for Electoral Reform (Cetro) Smitha Notosusanto also agreed that polling without clear methodology like SMS polling is dangerous and misleading. Polling center should explain its methodology to the public. If certain party or candidates are sponsoring polling, people must be informed of who is behind the polls.
“So, if certain party or candidate is always in the No.1 on the polling, the public will understand because he has sponsored the poll. With this understanding, the public will not take the poll result seriously,” added Smitha.
By publishing poll results, some analysts believe it will influence voters to choose particular party or candidate. There would be a bandwagon effects, where people vote for party or candidate that take a command lead in the polling because people tend to follow majority voters for their reference.
People’s Consultative Assembly Chairman (MPR) Amien Rais, a professor on political science, with full of cynicism said that polling results in the country depend on who sponsor and finance it.
“For me (as political expert), sometimes polling doesn’t make any sense,” he said in interview with Tempo Daily.
Mohamad Samsul Arifin, researcher with the Center of Bureaucracy Studies (CBS), said some polling organizations are no more than a political broker and opinion builder. “Polling is a way to get political benefits,” he said.
Thus, political parties and candidates loaded with smart, well-financed people, in their self-interest use polls results for their political benefits.
Polling which is ideal in democracy and serve as public control (result polling sometimes become a mandate from people) is now in crisis. To borrow term from Arjun Appadurai, in current political situation in Indonesia, polling has become a “politics of number” or “a number game” to exploit politics and politician.
Public opinion polling is in crisis
Many in Indonesia mistrust polling results as unreliable, even President Megawati Soekarnoputri made statement that people should not automatically believe the polling results because polling results sometimes come out as an order from its sponsor.
Megawati was upset because of polling result in Media Indonesia Daily put her in No.7 position and Surya Paloh (the owner of the newspaper) in No.1. Surya Paloh (also the owner of Metro TV station) is a presidential candidate of Golkar Party, a potential rival for Megawati who run for re-election.
“I believe this (position on No.7 in the poll) is because I don’t have TV station and Surya Paloh (No.1 in the poll) has Metro TV,” Megawati publicly attacks the results polling in Media Indonesia Daily and Metro TV station on the occasion of National Press Day.
Polling is in crisis, but not because they are all unreliable. Serious poll are generally reliable. For example, at least we have three respectable polling organizations, namely Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI), IRI and IFES. They have done national survey and polling with methodology standard and periodically. On the election, they have just published polling results on which party likely to be the winner on the forthcoming election (April 5, 2004).
The composition and percentage of vote might be different, but something in common is the three polling come out with the same result. LSI polling in November 2003, IRI polling in December 2003, and IFES polling in January 2004, showed that Golkar Party would get majority voters (ranking No.1) followed by PDIP Party or Megawati’s Party (ranking No.2). But, the pollsters also make public aware that there are still 20% of undecided voters. These voters will swing to Golkar Party, PDIP Party or others.
So, the problem is not purely polls themselves. Rather, the problem is how they have been used. Today’s crisis has been caused by journalists who distort poll results and by media pollsters who grant politician privileged access, information and influence.
As Muhammad Husain pointed out, public opinion polls related to elections should not be used as a major story by the news media, if polls project trending and manipulate voter’s preferences. But, if it is reliable and using scientific and standard methodology, media might publish it because it is very important to know what public think about election.
Serious polls have been increasingly successful at predicting election outcomes.
But, why unreliable and mislead polling are still there in the media?
“People like competition. Winners and losers,” said Lori Robertson, Managing Editor of American Journalism Review (AJR).
If people like competition, then market-driven media industries give them “horse race” polls and “horse race” election coverage. Media pay attention to the underdog that still has a fighting chance. Media report on how the dominating winner rolls over anything in her path. Media award them points to determine the victor and the vanquished.
“For horse race election coverage, media need poll. And poll needs media. Without publication, polling is just like tree falls in the forest. Although its really happen, nobody will know,” said Budiono Darsono, Editor in Chief Detik.com, the most popular news portal in Indonesia.
Looking at the experience of the 1996 presidential election in U.S., the problem with horse race polling and horse race election coverage was the media’s interpretation and reporting of them. A careful analyses of media coverage revealed that journalists – in their scramble to package a drama-filled story of a changing race – oversold, misrepresented, and misused polls.
Sabato found two recurring themes. First, journalists were preoccupied with using polls to discuss the horse race. The fixation with horse race polls soaked up time from exploring public attitudes toward policy issues and other politically relevant matters, for which there were ample and easily accessible opinion surveys.
Second, journalists largely limited their coverage to reporting internal polls (i.e. those commissioned by the news organization itself). CNN, for example, rarely reported polls by the New York Times or other organizations. The result was that audiences were denied the opportunity to weigh an internal poll against comparable surveys from competing sources; lost was the ability to reach more fully informed and balance conclusions.
Thus, by publishing survey results on elections, the news media complicate the public sphere and reduce rational discourse to a numbers game. Norman Bradburn, use the term of Self-Selected Listener Oriented Public Opinion (SLOP) to refer polling system in which people choose him/herself as a sample. Bradburn, Director National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of the University of Chicago, calls SLOP as “a fake poll”.
Why is it considered as fake poll? Because the results seem like public opinion, but the reality it is not public opinion. It is the self-selected certain public opinion. This kind of polling does not have substantial meaning, except to feed people desire to know.
Thus, the public sphere is not served well by publishing/broadcasting this kind of election-related public opinion polls. Publishing illegitimate election polling is not increasing public understanding. It is simply amount to more random noise.
But, again, as Budiono Darsono said, this polling mania will end up with more mature public. Polling fever is normal in election days.
“It is like fashion. If election is over, polling fever will over,” he said.
Opinion polls in Taiwan
Take a look on evolution of opinion survey in Taiwan. I believe Indonesia will take the same path.
Chun Sheng Cheng, Deputy Director of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Survey, categorizes the evolution of public opinion survey in Taiwan in three phases of presidential election.
During the 1st Presidential Election in 1996, the opinion survey of United Daily (Lian-he Bao) was the only source from mass media that time. During the 2nd Presidential Election in 2000, there were over 30 poll agencies reported their opinion surveys results. They were from mass media, political parties, survey companies, and many other organizations. In total, they reported 231 times of survey results.
An interesting phenomenon during the 2nd Presidential Election was the existence of “one-time survey” organizations. In 2000, some opinion survey organizations only declared survey results just once, and never showed again. They said that the winning probability of Mr. Lien Chan of Kuomintang Party (KMT) was quite high. Those survey results were proved far more different from the actual ones. Chen Shui-Bian, candidate from DPP win election with 39,3% votes, while Lien Chan only got 23,1% votes.
Many people started to believe that the surveys from those organizations were just kind of propaganda, but not real public opinion survey.
During the 3rd Presidential election March 20, 2004, organizations that announce opinion survey results are mainly from the mass media. Professional opinion survey organizations choose to cooperate with the mass media. Every survey organization dedicates to build up the credibility and impartialness.
The “one-time survey” organizations can hardly be seen at this time. The phenomenon of using public opinion survey to achieve the propagandist goal is gradually decreasing. Most opinion survey agencies not only declare the survey results, but also show the public the questionnaires and accept their evaluation.
According to Muhammad Husain, recent polling mania in Indonesia can be compared with polling fever during the 2nd Presidential Election in Taiwan in 2000. In this phase there were many opinion survey agencies. Opinion surveys during this period were mainly applied to elections making electoral strategies. Some candidates intended to influence voter’s decisions by manipulating the opinion survey results.
“When those survey results were proved far more different from the actual ones, people will start to believe that the surveys from those organizations were just kind of propaganda,” he said.
Only legitimate polls will survive. Propaganda polls will vanish. This is what happens during the 3rd presidential election in Taiwan this March 2004. Every survey organization in Taiwan now dedicates to build up credibility and impartialness.
During the last election, a lot of Taiwanese doubted the opinion survey results. They have no confidence in the opinion survey organizations because the doubts of political power interference in some survey organizations. In other hand, the mass media have biased standpoints.
Media should stick to their journalistic objectives
“Having fun with polls is OK,” says Mark A Schulman, president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. But, he stresses, using polls as entertainment instead of as a bridge between government or corporate decision makers and the public –the original purpose of polls—“really undermines the credibility of a lot of what we do”.
Because so many surveys are commissioned by news organizations, this is not just a question of polling etiquette. It’s one of media ethics as well. “There’s always the serious question of what is your journalistic purpose,” says Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcasting and online journalism at the Poynter Institute. “You don’t ever want to do anything that end up compromising your journalistic integrity,” he added.
The news media should stick to their journalistic objectives. The election polling runs contrary to such objectives. As my colleague Arlene Burgos mentions in discussion board, these polls may have elements of truth in them, like reflect actual voter sentiment with the least margin of error as possible. But the problem lies in the manner by which they will be used by any politician or candidate who may benefit from them. The media may come in handy in this case, because they may be unwitting instruments of disseminating the propaganda.
The purpose of journalism is to provide people with information they need to be free and self-governing. There is the danger of trending, of the polls creating a snowball effect on the voters, so that the people who have yet to make final decision or are undecided are swayed into certain direction by polls. This will distort the ideal process of choosing leaders where the people are free from any kind of influence, mind conditioning or even psywar.
Kovach and Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism” said that the first loyalty of journalism is to citizens. Journalists has to play the role of honest broker and referee and media should serve as an independent monitor of power, and not agent of power In the election time, journalists and media should provide public with substantive issues, not just horse race coverage. There is evidence that polling is replacing some shoe leather reporting.
A study of network coverage in the two months prior to the U.S. 2000 election found that 71% of the stories were devoted to horse race coverage, up significantly from previous two elections (55% in 1992, 48% in 1996). Excessive media polling of public opinion are crowding out coverage of substantive issues. The sheer number of polls are confusing readers and viewers.
The media need to stop using polls as much as they do. If we don’t want our people become a poll crazy society, then the journalists should rely less on surveys.
Alan F Kay, Elections, Polling and Democracy, The Polling Critic, October 29, 2002
Arjun Appadurai, “Modernity at Large, Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation”, University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Arlene Burgos, discussion message for Journ 248: Media and Politics, February 20, 2004.
Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, New York, 2001.
Budiono Darsono interviews with author on March 16, 2004.
Chun Sheng Cheng, The Influential Power and the Development of Opinion Survey on Public Policies (The Case of Taiwan)”, paper on seminar on “Election Polling”, Jakarta, 2004.
Daniel Dhakidae, “Social Will, Political Demand, and Public Opinion”, Jakarta, 1993.
Enceng Shobirin Nadj, “Polling: Democratization Versus Politics of Number”, workshop on The Political Impact of Opinion Surveys, in Jakarta on February 25, 2004
Kompas Cyber Media, January 27, 2004
Lori Robertson, “Polled Enough for Ya?”, January/February 2001 issue.
Lori Robertson interview with Mark A Schulman, American Journalism Review, January/February 2003 issue.
Megawati’s speech on National Press Day held in National Palace, February 9, 2004
Muhammad Husein interviews with author on March 17, 2004.
Muhammad Qodari, “Election Polling”, Kompas Daily, 2004.
Public Broadcasting Services (PBS), Poll Mania, October 15, 2003.
Robert S Erikson & Kent L Tedin, American Public Opinion, Its Origins, Content and Impact, Allyn and Bacon, Massachuset, 1995.
Robert Y Shapiro, “The Crisis in Polling”, Columbia University, 2003.
Sheldon R Gawiser & G. Evans Witt, “A Journalist Guide to Public Opinion Polls, 1995
Suara Pembaruan Daily, October 4, 2003.
Tempo Daily, September 29, 2003.
 Interview with Muhammad Husein on March 17, 2004.
 Enceng Shobirin Nadj, “Polling: Democratization Versus Politics of Number”, workshop on The Political Impact of Opinion Surveys, in Jakarta on February 25, 2004
 Daniel Dhakidae, “Social Will, Political Demand, and Public Opinion”, Jakarta, 1993.
 Robert S Erikson & Kent L Tedin, “American Public Opinion, Its Origins, Content and Impact”, Allyn and Bacon, Massachuset, 1995.
 Enceng Shobirin Nadj, ibid.
 Suara Pembaruan Daily, September 24, 2003.
 Suara Pembaruan Daily, October 4, 2003.
 Muhammad Qodari, “Election Polling”, Kompas Daily, September 24, 2003.
 Tempo Daily, September 29, 2003.
 Kompas Daily, September 28, 2003.
 Arjun Appadurai, “Modernity at Large, Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation”, University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
 Kompas Cyber Media, January 27, 2004.
 Megawati’s speech on National Press Day held in National Palace, February 9, 2004.
 Robert Y Shapiro, “The Crisis in Polling”, Columbia University, 2003.
 Alan F Kay, “Elections, Polling and Democracy”, The Polling Critic, October 29, 2002.
 Lori Robertson, “Polled Enough for Ya?”, January/February 2001 issue.
 Interview with Budiono Darsono on March 16, 2004.
 Robert Y Shapiro, “The Crisis in Polling”, Columbia University, 2003.
 Sheldon R Gawiser & G. Evans Witt, “A Journalist Guide to Public Opinion Polls, 1995.
 Chun Sheng Cheng, “The Influental Power and the Development of Opinion Survey on Public Policies (The Case of Taiwan)”, paper on seminar on “Election Polling”, Jakarta, 2004.
 President Taiwan Chen Shui-Bian, seeking for reelection, and Vice President Annette Lu were shot on March 19, 2004, while campaigning for presidential election, but their injuries were not life threatening.
 Interview Lori Robertson with Mark A Schulman, American Journalism Review, January/February 2003 issue.
 Arlene Burgos, discussion message for Journ 248: Media and Politics, February 20, 2004.
 Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel, ibid.
 Arlene Burgos, ibid.
 Public Broadcasting Services (PBS), “Poll Mania”, October 15, 2003.