Fri, 12 Dec 2003

Is Indonesia really ready for the 2004 general elections?

Daniel Lindgren, Associate Director TNS Indonesia, Jakarta

Still recovering from the aftermath of the Bali bombings, 2003 saw Indonesia faced with SARS and new terrorist attacks. Considering the circumstances 2003 has not been such a bad year after all. The outlook for 2004 is moderately positive but the world will continue to watch Indonesia as it faces up to yet another big challenge, the upcoming General Election.

The 2004 election will be a unique undertaking never before seen in Indonesia. In addition to the General Election, the country will hold its first ever, direct presidential election. The two stage presidential election is very likely to go to a second round unless of course a presidential candidate is able to capture 50 percent majority in the first round of votes.

That is highly unlikely given the current sentiments that exist in Indonesia. So the top two candidates will battle it out in a second round of voting. Some question whether Indonesia is ready for this. But as a matter of fact, this is what the vast majority of the people want as indicated by past opinion research. The constitution was amended accordingly.

One of the developments that can be seen is that Indonesians are taking a more active role in politics. More Indonesians now compared to before are aware of National Level Institutions such as DPR and MPR and the President's Reform Agenda. For example, the vast majority of Indonesians do hold an opinion as to whether they are happy with law enforcement and decentralization through local autonomy.

This is encouraging despite the many issues surrounding the coming election. So whilst security certainly is an issue that many fear could become a problem, participation in the 2004 general election is likely to be very high.

A recent survey carried out by TNS show that no less that 96 percent of eligible voters in the three cities of Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung said they intend to vote in 2004. Whilst not representative of Indonesia as a whole, that is a promising number. This means that the electorate is indeed thinking about the political situation in this country and they clearly care about the nations future leadership. No doubt that if people care then high participation can be expected.

In the same survey, those who voted in 1999 were asked whether they would vote for the same party. It turns out that only 28 percent of past voters said they would vote for the same party. Another 18 percent confessed they would vote for a different party and the remaining 54 percent were not sure at this stage.

This suggests that there could be a big swing in voter preferences. It is of course too early to say which party will benefit from this swing and who will suffer but it does send a signal that a large proportion of the electorate are already considering alternatives. Some would argue it shows that a general negative sentiment may be looming.

Whilst such a conclusion is consistent with recent polls showing increasing dissatisfaction with the country's leaders, as well as the performance of representative bodies in terms of law making and governance, this can not be implied directly. It could simply mean that some voters are less than loyal. The 2004 election will certainly be a challenge for the current government, for political parties, the electorate itself and not the least, the General Election Commission (KPU).

An already debated issue for the coming election is the introduction of a new election system and to what extent the electorate will be able to vote correctly. Early trials have shown rather poor compliance with more than one in every two votes being invalid. An added dimension to this is that many eligible voters don't know, at this stage, that there will be a separate presidential election.

The recent survey carried out by TNS showed that just over one quarter (26 percent) of the electorate are aware that there will be a separate presidential election. This may be a conservative estimate given that the survey was carried out in the major cities. In rural areas, where 58 percent of the total population live, awareness is likely to be lower.

To help raise awareness, the Government has already launched a joint nationwide awareness campaign together with the KPU. Raising awareness may seem like a rather straightforward affair but could turn out to be rather challenging when considering the low media consumption in some of the more remote parts of Indonesia. A perhaps even more challenging task will be to educate the electorate on how the new electoral system actually works.

With over 20 political parties expected to contest the election, ballot papers are likely to be long and complicated. The risk of confusion is high. The order in which parties appear on the ballot paper will be another interesting debate to follow. Fortunately there are dedicated NGOs who work with various stakeholders to help in the process. The conduct of research in the form of opinion polls that highlight the issues at hand is of course one important element in this process.

In this vein, the TNS survey also investigated factors perceived to have most influence on the Indonesian economy. In other words, what are some of the issues that the electorate is concerned about and would like to see improve?

In the recent past, the number one concern has been the high price of basic goods. However, the issue found to be of most concern in this survey was corruption. No less than 82 percent of the 1009 men and women surveyed felt this was an issue that impacted negatively on the Indonesian economy.

The second issue of most concern was unemployment with 61 percent followed by high prices at 57 percent. Government mismanagement came forth with 46 percent and in fifth place came security with 37 percent. The issue of declining foreign investment, often quoted as a pressing issue for Indonesia, was only selected by 17 percent. Again, although these issues may not be representative of all Indonesians they highlight potential platforms for political policy formulation.

No doubt the election will bring many challenges and many will predict uncertainty and possibly instability. However, it seems possible that the electorate has already factored in this uncertainly, so perhaps there is an underlying hope that things may improve. People may be dissatisfied but the election will provide for an opportunity to bring about change.

Of course, when people don't care they may decide not to participate and hence don't vote for any party or candidate. They don't take a stand because they don't feel it is important. But that does not seem to be the case. The electorate will participate and they do have "real" concerns. As long as people know how to vote and have the means to participate, they will turn up. They may not be ready today, but there is still time.

Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) is a market information group