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Political Contestation (An Article by Ichal Supriadi)

May 5th, 2017

CONTESTATION IN ELECTIONS 

By. Ichal Supriadi[1]

Our understanding of electoral contestation has evolved over the years as advancements in technology and information ushered an era dominated by calls for transparency and auditability. Through the evolution of methods on information dissemination, political contestants were able to influence or manipulate how they want to be perceived. Politicians are aware that people tend to vote for candidates who can give convincing solutions on issues incumbent leaders cannot. Furthermore, mainstream and social media contributed on enhancing social awareness and public support, but on the flip side created divisions based on personalities. Indeed, the course evolution of politics has changed, the people’s expectations has become more direct and pragmatic.

According to recent ANFREL researches, the quality and democracy of election in Asia remains highly uneven. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and India have established mature political culture and a high level of democratic stability. Some countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, and Mongolia are on the path of achieving maturity, and are enjoying relatively stable and vibrant democracies. Others are on the transition towards democratization like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Myanmar. But a handful can still be categorized into some of the world’s most repressive government[2]. The awesome effect of a media influence and campaigns on transparency and open governments will most likely affect the status quo.

Countries belonging in the first two categories were able to achieve such successes through a robust culture of social engagements between stakeholders. While the rest of political contestation are still struggle to deal with unprofessional bureaucratic structure, undue (authoritarian) control, and insurgency and security arrangements, the achievement of a mature electoral contests still has a long way to go. Such was the case in the recent 2016 elections in the Philippines, where the ruling party advocated the killing of drug cartel suspects without any trial. This gathered the amusement of the public which earned them the presidency, and a supermajority in both Houses of the Legislature.

 

BEYOND MAINSTREAMS

Politicians use different methods which utilize effective media strategies which exploit popular issues and public image which aims to gather support by invoking intense and personal feelings such as empathy towards marginalized sectors (most especially the poor who comprise the majority of voters). Other mainstream strategies include portraying a grassroot-friendly image, calling for a clean government, and campaign promises on solving huge social problems.

Present political campaigns at present are now colorful, creative and geared towards appeal to emotion rather than the emphasis on policy direction which was the aim of the traditional public rallies and debates. Among the most common issues covered in contemporary campaigns include popular normative social and development issues, to extreme cases such as sectarian issues. More daring candidates would propose “quick solutions” to attributing deeply entrenched social problems to a segment of a society, justifying actions such as extrajudicial killing, racism, and other inhumane and undemocratic policies.

Successful political campaigns require a strong machinery and an abundance of resources, hence a candidate must either have a substantial financial and political capital which he may inherently have, or he may “borrow” from people who possess those resources like finance moguls and influential politicians. An emerging third option to gather resources is through crowd fund raising (CFR), which most of the time fails to gather sufficient support. As long as capital is monopolized by a select few, reforms in political contests are likely to be sidelined. Political dynasties also play a big role in contests. Though widely accepted, the existence of political dynasties in emerging democracies prove to be a hindrance because it puts the control of authority on the hands of a few families, which makes contests skewed. It is also an indicator or political immaturity and the weak political parties.

 

MEDIA INFLUENCES AND POLITICAL PARTICIPATION

Media plays a vital role in increasing people’s political participation in political events in making sure that information is widely accessible. In the recent years, social media has augmented media’s influence by providing a platform for quick exchange of views and information. Candidates take advantage of media to campaign, spread propaganda and proposed policies, which makes media a battleground on shaping public opinion, and this consumes a huge portion of a candidate’s resources. This makes media corporations among the most powerful institutions during elections which attracts the “friendship” of political actors. Survey firms enjoy similar attention due to “polling snowfall effect”[3], or the ability of polling results to convince undecided voters and weakly decided voters to vote for candidates leading the polls.

Strong connection between political actors and the media led most people to distrust both institutions and gave birth to a movement of political bloggers and social media activists which label traditional media as “biased media”. In principle, the increase of engagement through these third-party agents is a positive development, although most of the time these bloggers and activists also serve as propaganda agents for certain parties and politicians. The collision of these media forces endanger spaces for neutral, non-partisan groups because their traditional source of resources are shrinking away as well. Non-partisan groups should be strengthened given its role and function as provider of balanced information during elections. They should be empowered as auxiliary watchdogs both to political agents and election management bodies. ANFREL recognizes inclusive and meaningful political participation as important pillar in creating democratic elections as stated at Dili indicator on democratic elections principles (2015).[4]

Non-partisan groups should be ensured of sufficient resources and space to perform independently in such environment. One method is to work with the election management bodies and authorities in creating a level playing field for all candidates in order to achieve a transparent and credible elections where all actors play by the rules of the game. Cooperation between two institutions is crucial, but ensuring the independence of each institution is much more important.

One of the positive developments that emerged is the use of open data in elections and governance. The world is witnessed the growth of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. The Open Government Partnership was formally launched on September 20, 2011, when the 8 founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States) endorsed the Open Government Declaration, and announced their countries’ action plans.[5] In the recent years, ANFREL has been exerting efforts to promote transparency and integrity elections, and one of strategy is to cooperate with the Election Management Bodies EMBs in national and regional arena as stated in Bali commitment on Electoral Transparency: Eight Keys to Integrity, endorsed during the third Asian Electoral Stakeholders Forum (AESF) held in Bali in 2016[6].

Political contestation should be framed under the existing national rules and regulations to achieve equal level playing field and law enforcement. It is also important to promote global principles to ensure fair contestation, and further accountability of elected officials, as well as engagement of the civil society to make positive intervention to the further enhancement in political contestation.

 

###END###

[1] Executive Director of Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). Presented during the Electoral Visit Program (EVP) 2017, hosted by The General Elections Commission, Komisi Pemilihan Umum (KPU) Republic of Indonesia.

[2] Electoral challenges in Asia today. Available at http://aerc-anfrel.org/2016/10/25/update-news-2016/

[3] Mehrabian, A. (1998). Effects of poll reports on voter preferences. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28, 2119-2130.

[4] Dili Indicator endorsed during the 2nd Asian Electoral Stakeholder Forum (AESF) conference held in Dili, Timor Leste 2015. the content is available at: www.aesforum.org

[5] http://www.opengovpartnership.org/about

[6]: http://aesforum.anfrel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Working-Document-8-keys-transparency-elections.pdf

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