Handle Political Surveys with Care

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POLITICAL polling in Indonesia, say seasoned observers, has little to do with determining voter preferences. Rather, the surveys conducted by the country’s numerous political consultancies focus on promoting the political fortunes of the parties or rich individuals who hire them.

Recently published surveys have certainly come to sharply differing conclusions about the electability of potential presidential candidates for the 2014 elections. 

One poll released last month by the Political Weather Station (PWS), for example, showed that former vice-president Jusuf Kalla was the most popular presidential candidate. He was supported by 22.14 per cent of respondents. The predicted margin of victory, however, was narrow.

About 20 per cent of voters preferred Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) leader and former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, while another 19.3 per cent chose Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) chief patron and former army general Prabowo Subianto.

A survey by the National Survey Institute at about the same time, however, produced a very different result. In this case, Mr Prabowo came out on top, being favoured by 20.1 per cent of respondents. Trailing well behind was Mr Wiranto, chairman of the People’s Conscience Party, a potential presidential candidate who did not figure in the PWS survey at all. He garnered support from 12 per cent of those polled.

Mr Kalla, who PWS declared the most popular, only got 9.4 per cent. Ms Megawati and Golkar party leader Aburizal Bakrie collected 8.8 per cent and 7.1 per cent, respectively.

With such wildly differing results, can any of these surveys be trusted?

The sample sizes – usually around 1,200 – are generally regarded by commercial survey firms as adequate. They produce a margin of error of 2 per cent to 3 per cent. Most political surveys also draw their respondents from all of the nation’s 33 provinces, underlining their claim that the results have truly national significance.

But the fact that the sole source of income of these consultancies comes from politicians and political parties suggests caution. Professional pollsters consulted for this story noted privately that there were many ways to rig a sample so that the results favour one or two particular candidates while still making it appear nationally representative.

The fact that the results of such surveys are used to influence the political process is hardly in doubt. The PWS survey, for example, has been used by the supporters of Mr Kalla to suggest that Golkar might be better off supporting the former vice-president’s bid for the presidency rather than that of its party chairman. Mr Bakrie garnered support from only 16.3 per cent of respondents in the PWS poll. Mr Kalla and Mr Bakrie have a long history of political rivalry.

So those looking for a more reliable means of measuring national political preferences must look elsewhere. One option is the Monthly Political Monitor produced by commercial pollster Roy Morgan.

This report is based on a series of questions added to regular consumer confidence surveys conducted for local banks, telecommunications companies and consumer goods manufacturers. Using a sample size of at least 2,000 and targeting respondents 16 years and older in 17 provinces, this survey claims to cover about 83 per cent of the nation’s voters.

With no particular political axe to grind, this poll reveals Mr Prabowo to be the most favoured of the current crop of potential presidential candidates. He was supported by 14 per cent of respondents, closely followed by Ms Megawati (13 per cent), Mr Bakrie (12 per cent) and Mr Kalla (9 per cent).

Public Enterprise Minister and newspaper tycoon Dahlan Iskan garnered 8 per cent of support. Other potential candidates had insignificant support.

Far more important was the number of respondents who said they were undecided – 14 per cent. Based on these results, what sort of alliances are we likely to see in 2014?

Roy Morgan research also shows that despite the recent scandals that have battered his administration, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono remains the most popular politician in the country.

He may therefore have considerable influence over undecided voters. One option to preserve his legacy might be for Dr Yudhoyono to support a Democrat-Golkar alliance, with Mr Bakrie running for the presidency on condition that Dr Yudhoyono’s brother-in-law, Army Chief of Staff Pramono Edhie, partners him as vice-president.

Both are military men, an occupation that, according to Roy Morgan, most voters prefer in a presidential candidate.

As for the opposition, the most viable coalition would be between Mr Prabowo (Gerindra) and Ms Megawati, or a candidate supported by her PDI-P.

The nation’s political elite, however, is far more used to using surveys as a political weapon rather than as an analytical tool. It is therefore far from clear whether the results of independent polling will figure in the political calculations of the major players as the 2014 elections approach.

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited 

Key Political Risks

The inability of the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to bridge the deep divisions between her populist government and its royalist opponents in the military and bureaucracy remains a major concern.

Prime Minister Yingluck has selected a competent economic team, but it is difficult for these technocrats to deliver on the new government's campaign promises without triggering inflation or hurting business. 

The government has also been unable to resolve the ongoing insurgency involving ethnic Malay Muslim rebels in the south.



  1. Attempts by the government to amend the constitution. The proposed rewrite is aimed removing legal measures initiated by the royalist generals who overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the current prime minister's elder brother, in 2006.
  2. Ballooning government debt as officials seek to finance government programmes aimed at subsidising rice prices in order to retain the support of farmers.
  3. The relationship between Prime Minister Yingluck and senior generals. Coups have been a common means of regime change in Thai history, and any attempt by the government to purge royalist elements in the top brass could trigger yet another. Thailand

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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