Understanding Political Behavior in Indonesia  

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    TEMPO/Amston Probel

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The behavior of politicians and voters is interesting for purposes of observation. The transition from authoritarian regime to flawed democracy in Indonesia and the proliferation of social media use in political campaigns provide an opportunity to observe political behaviors that never existed before. This article will explain popular political campaign strategies currently used in general elections, their purposes and impacts on voter behaviors in Indonesia.

    The importance of political campaign on social media in Indonesia

    The use of social media for political campaigns has gained popularity in Indonesia since the election of the Governor of Jakarta in 2012, which was won by Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo as the Governor, paired with Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama as the Vice Governor. Two years later, an effective social media strategy again helped Jokowi sweep to victory in the presidential election. Recently, social media has once again become a battlefield in the Jakarta gubernatorial election with Ahok as the incumbent, challenged by Anies Baswedan, the former Minister of Education in Jokowi’s cabinet, and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the first son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

    Why social media have become an important battleground in political competitions is statistically evident. With over 70 million Facebook users and 20 million Twitter users, Indonesia is one of the countries with the most social media users in the world. Therefore, winning the political campaign on social media would help a politician win votes in a real political contest.

    Four popular political campaign strategies

    Observations on the behaviors of politicians, political consultants, and their supporters on social media indicate that there are four popular political campaign strategies in recent general elections in Indonesia.

    The first is to build a perception that politicians are the voters. ‘Jokowi is us’, ‘Friends of Ahok’, and ‘We are Ahok’ are three examples of how politicians are trying to associate themselves with voters. This strategy is different from what Yudhoyono did, the first president directly elected by the people, who pioneered the use of social media as a medium for mass political communication. Instead of developing a relationship with voters, Yudhoyono merely used social media to put himself at the center of attention.

    The second is to establish a social identity and a relationship among voters, sympathizers, and supporters. In Jokowi and Ahok’s campaigns, to wear a square-patterned shirt and to put their voting number as a picbadge or as a frame on one’s profile picture are two examples of this strategy. This strategy has not only successfully induced voters to publicly reveal their political preference, a behavior that has rarely happened before, but has also led voters to share enthusiasm and build social relationships among those who will vote for the same politicians.

    The third is to build a perception of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Politicians aim to create a perception that they are good people while their opponents and critics are evil. One example of this tactic is to spread a meme that contains photos of people who are critical of the politicians put next to photos of those convicted of corruption and terrorism cases. Another example is to build a perception that people who oppose or disagree with the politicians are the ones who reject democracy and diversity.

    The last, but not least, is to build a perception that a politician is acting on behalf of God, religion, ethnic minorities, or oppressed groups. While this sort of strategy is commonly used by the Prosperous Justice Party, a conservative Islamic party, in presenting its party leaders to its members and sympathizers, this strategy has also been used recently by liberal political parties in branding their politicians in the eyes of the voters.

    What are the purposes of these political strategies?

    There are at least three goals to be achieved by such strategies. The first is to build up militancy among voters, supporters and sympathizers. Voters affected by the strategies will likely feel that they are volunteering and fighting for a good cause. The next goal is to mobilize voters and sympathizers to act in the interests of the politician. Supporters and sympathizers would be more active in giving support for the politicians and convince other voters, both on social media and in everyday life. The final goal is to reduce rationality in assessing whether a politician is qualified to hold public office or not. The more irrational a voter, the more likely the voter does not care about criticism addressed to the politician, no matter how objective the criticism is.

    Impacts on voter’s behaviors

    No less interesting is to observe the behavior of voters. The four strategies are more efficient and effective, compared with money politics and other strategies, in influencing voter’s behavior. Based on observations of the behaviors of voters, sympathizers, and supporters, there are a number of behaviors that show how much a person is affected by such strategies. Those behaviors include treating the political campaign like a holy war that must be won, believing in the statements of the politicians as if they are the words of God, the prophets, or saints, citing the verses of religions or the quotations of religious figures to defend the politicians, being willing to put the photos of the politicians or their voting numbers as a picbadge or a frame on one’s profile picture, feeling obligated to respond to negative comments on the politicians, considering others who criticize the politicians as undemocratic and irrational, assuming criticism against the politicians as a threat to religion, race, ethnicity, and even existence of oneself, and, finally, ending up in being in conflict with friends, or one’s own relatives.

    At the public level, such strategies have not only politically divided the country, but also hurt the people who engaged in political activism on social media. The rise of ‘unfriend’ and ‘unfollow’ on social media indicates how voters are negatively affected by such political works. It appears that similar tactics will dominate political contests in Indonesia in the future. It is imperative to immediately recognize the core symptoms before it is too late. Putting aside or at least reducing political activism on social media and in real life would help reduce the levels of stress caused by the work of politicians.


    PhD candidate in Public Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago