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No to negative campaigning, yes to public scrutiny

No to negative campaigning, yes to public scrutiny
Todung Mulya Lubis  ;   Chairman of the Indonesian Advocates Union (Ikadin) 
JAKARTA POST, 16 April 2014
Before exercising my right to vote I went through all the names of those running for the various legislatures (Regional Legislative Council [DPRD], House of Representatives [DPR] and Regional Representatives Council [DPD]) in my district. I noticed there was only one name, of a DPD candidate, that was familiar to me. Those listed for the DPRD and DPR did not ring any bells.

Who were they? Aliens? I had seen no television commercial or political advertisement about them in the media. I told my family we might as well vote for the political party that we believed was closest to our ideological affinity.

We certainly did not want to let our votes be used or stolen by other parties or candidates that might have the ways and means of doing so.

Although the probability of stealing votes is remote we still have to be cautious. The poll workers might have been trained and instructed not to commit any wrongdoing but in a country where political corruption is prevalent, vote rigging is by no means out of the question.

Almost every night I watched political commercials on various television channels and frankly I was not at all impressed.

Only a few of the political commercials attracted my attention, not for their substance but more for the grandiose appearances harking back to the old kingdoms, in spite of the optimism conveyed to the people.

They were designed rather nicely. Most of the other political commercials were poorly prepared and uninteresting; it looked as if they were made just to show the public that the parties existed.

However, those following our social media would have come across tons of negative campaigning ranging from the veiled to the blatant and uncivilized.

Accusations were tweeted without evidence time and again, and once a response was given then another series of accusations was tweeted again.

Tweets require neither verification nor must they cover both sides. Facebook postings don’t require editing or correction. Social media is the perfect place to exercise near limitless freedom.

Often it’s difficult to draw the line between accusation, defamation and slander — or all three. Up to this very moment even the rule of reason does not apply in social media. So, welcome to freedom!

In the era of social media almost every party and politician directly or indirectly utilizes every form of social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others.

Fortunately they are free, although access to social media seems to be limited to urbanites and the educated.

However, social media does play an important role in shaping perceptions and opinions, for better or for worse. For those with limited funds, playing to the social-media frenzy seems to be the avenue of choice for reaching the masses, even though the actual number reached is not that significant.

People in small villages and remote areas may not have access at all, but they may be reached through various other modes of communication. Cell phones may serve to rectify the situation.

The question: have those parties and politicians in a systematic way exploited the power of social media to their advantage?

Objections to negative campaigning do not necessarily mean critical campaigning is not possible. Moreover, negative campaigning will never end since it is inherently part of the political process, part of human nature.

Isn’t it common practice that if you can’t beat your opponent it is logical to attack your opponent by any means, including going after their personal character, family or other aspects of their lives? Innuendo, threat and slander are but a few of the tactics often used depending on the circumstances.

Ideally, politics must be interpreted in such a way that any party and politician must commit himself to the public good.

Therefore, politics may not actually be a dirty business with dirty tricks. An election in this respect must be viewed as a process where voters exercise their rights to elect the best and most dedicated people for the betterment of the people.

In order to be elected, therefore, one must distance oneself from dirty tricks including the use of negative campaigning. It is not an overstatement to say that to be a politician one has to be socially acceptable and respectable.

Ironically, from one election to the next we have always come across negative political campaigning, and lately such practices have turned from bad to worse.

Our social-media outlets have especially been occupied by negative campaigning, not about what is important for the future, what programs will be carried out and what will be the immediate 100-day target of the new administration.

Baseless accusations and slanders have been tweeted and retweeted, posted and disseminated, printed and broadcast. Our people, therefore, receive inaccurate or misleading information.

Worse, the people have missed opportunities to take part in a critical political education.

It is high time all parties and politicians elevated themselves to a higher playing field where politics is viewed as a dignified way of devoting one’s time to realizing the noble objectives enshrined in the Constitution.

It is high time that we ended negative political campaigning in whatever form. No one will benefit from such negative campaigning.

In this regard, I second Goenawan Mohamad’s tweet when he said that it was useless to talk about accusations against presidential candidates; it is more constructive to talk about who has more of a contribution to society.

To engage in constructive campaigning it is important to engage in public scrutiny. Our people deserve accurate and fair information about each and every candidate. Our people deserve to know what they have done and achieved.

They have to know their backgrounds to make sound and informed judgments before exercising their right to vote. Any candidate for public office should be an open book that anyone can read.

To engage in public scrutiny must mean to critically gather and analyze information and then disseminate that information to the public for the singular objective of helping the public make an informed judgment.

One can see that public scrutiny has a different meaning and it is obviously not the same as negative political campaigning.
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