Monday, September 29, 2008

The Tales of A Fading Star (01) - Political Rhapsody

A Public Awareness Poster on Voter Registration in Indonesian Election 2004

In the beginning 2004, when I was a broadcaster in a national radio network in Central Java. I was sent to Jakarta, our capital city, to have a training on electoral coverage held by Internews Indonesia. Internews Indonesia is a network of Internews, an international media development organization based in California. I, and some other selected radio journalists from other provinces in Indonesia had a very good training about the electoral procedures, the codes of conduct to ensure the impartiality of the programs, and message to empower the voters, including fostering the voter education.

Starting from that point I saw the fascination of international organizations toward a historical moment of the democrary in Indonesia. Those organizations sponsored media programs, voter education activities, including the development of voter education modules and public information materials, producing public service announcement in national and local media, conducting trainings for electoral staff, and so on. Some of them also deployed their Election Observation Missions (EOM) to observe overall electoral process, including the campaign, voting, up to vote counts. It was like a huge political extravaganza: the political parties ran circus-like, non-rational-critical debates rallies, and thousands of electoral observers observed the euphoria of what was said as the first democratic election, ever in Indonesia.

In my sharper vision after my training with the Internews, I started to see that this election has also been a center of attention of many international organizations, including US-based organizations. They were very keen on the electoral observation and public awareness programs to raise political awareness in this "newly-democratic country". From that picture, I built the image, that America, is really a democratic country, that is so keen about ensuring the political education to be absorbed by all levels of community.

Now, let's move to today, October 2008, I'm in Albany...

This picture is taken from here

Some months before my departure to the States, CNN was my almost-daily dinner menu. Not only that I was fascinated by the campaign trail but also the ups and downs of the vote predictions. I was thinking, that the Americans were so fascinated, as much as I was, about this election. I imagined the stacks of posters and banners all the way, as crowded as it is in Indonesia at the campaign phase, but I was wrong.

It was pretty surprising for me to see NOTHING related to the national election on the way. No photos of the candidates, no posters, no banners, nothing. I walked through the bus stops, campus corridors, downtown area, wondering. Why? Is it because everybody knows Obama and McCain so well? But are the people sure that they are going to vote?

I have heard a little about the political apathy in the USA before I arrived, but I hear about that so loud as I am here. I am, actually surprised by the numbers shown - that the voters turnout in 2004's Election was 60.7%* - slightly lower that the percentage of turnout in Indonesian Election 2004, 67.57%**. Can it be true? USA, a country that teaches the world, including my country, about democracy, and the importance of voting, actually has smaller percentage of voter?

That 61% in 2004 was said to be the highest hit since 1963. Highest? Wow. How about before, in between 1963 - 2004? Less than 61%? In this said-to-be most democratic country on the planet? How come?
I believe that the turnout in Indonesian Election before 2004 reached higher than that 67.57%, yet I cannot use that number for an apple-to-apple comparison, as Indonesia, prior to 2004 was a country operating on the basis of pseudo-democracy, the condition that looked like we fulfilling all requirements to count as that kind of "democratic" country, where political participation is represented through voting ballots, while the freedom of voting itself was not guaranteed. It just doesn't work.
So, it was my first schock, political-wise.

I then learned that voter education is something rare in national media. I watched news channels, and I hardly see neutral electoral ads, or the ads that merely encourage people to register and cast their vote. Instead, compared to the dynamics in Indonesian election, the voter education activities in United States, in my eyes looks like underground phenomenons, the off-mainstream media programs, as the channels are more interested in the political waves itself then the encouragement to the people to be aware of their political rights.

At the other hand, as I joined Political Communication Theory classes, I learned more that, yes, the media in general sets the voter education programs aside. Instead, some critiques said that the media even cultivate the apathy within the voter, as they provide great exposure on negative news related to the political actors and political parties. The term of voting between "the lesser of two evils" is something that I heard quite often in the last two weeks, and indeed, whoever invented that term, it empirically reflects the condition of lack of trust within the voter community.

I am not (yet) a political expert, but I remember so much on my election observation days, how strict the observers were in zooming to the media bias, black campaigning and impartiality issues. We were good friends to Panwaslu, the election watch dog in Indonesian electoral structure, in grabbing sets of data of negative tones in campaigns that can withdraw voter favors toward a certain party or candidate. Black campaign was a serious issue. an additional note, I was not only working with the EU Observer, but at a point in the second election term, I was also with a US-based election observer, and I knew how keen they were about that issue.

But here, in USA, I cannot count how much I have seen those indecent campaign ads broadcasted in national media. In a common sense, if you are an undecided voter, you are not well informed, you would be confused to see both competing parties putting negative to each other. In common public information values, you should not confuse your audience if you would like to build their knowledge. Carpini (1996), in "What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters" said, "...political knowledge helps citizens make sense of the political world by providing them with a basis for evaluating new information in light of their own values..."

Hm, so, allow me to offer you an "if" condition:

If, the only available political knowledge accessible to public is the contradictory information infused by opposite parties, would it be sufficient for common people to make sense of political world?

Michael Moore was said to do a voter education effort. I was all excited as Jiji told me that Moore was going to launch a documentary titled Slacker Uprising. I should have not been too naive to think that he was merely going to launch a neutral voter education project, regarding on his previous project track records. I downloaded the Slacker Uprising as soon as I came back from my class on September 23rd. Yet, I am a little disappointed. I do appreciate his spirit to open up the Slackers' eyes to the sins of the incumbent's leadership. The way he creates the bond between people - who already have the seeds of some common values is an interesting object for a message design and social influence study.

Yet, I think he doesn't work so well in bridging two existing political stands, to remind everyone that it is not about A or B, but it is about the future of America. This failure is indicated by extreme refusal from the opposite party, the GOP. A voter education, if it really aims to raise people awareness in general, should be more neutral, and non-condemning than that. This is just a tiny example.

After all we all know, that we cannot assume that ALL Americans really know what to do with their political rights.

I feel that it is ironic: US government should help its own people first before helping people in other country in understanding democracy. I don't know whether there is a regulation prohibiting the government to intervene the public information streams in the media here, but I suppose, in the battle between political parties, that might impact to unfavorable condition to voters' political knowledge, there should be a neutral party in between to shy the voters away from the apathy.

Seeing the slacker uprising in 2004 and reading the predictions on 2008 turnout "tsunami", I am optimistic that there will be more Americans using their right to vote. However, in my naive Indonesian point of view, these fights between the blue and the red has been too nasty, that it left a very narrow opportunity for the common people, to comprehend their choices out of the negative feelings toward others.

I am sad for the Americans. Politics, and the image of sweet democracy his is the first fading star in my eyes....


* Washington Post

** The Jakarta Post

Interesting Links to Visit:

CIRCLE (Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), Rock the Vote, Slacker Uprising, Politico, USAID-Indonesia, Democracy and Governance Project, The Carter Center Report on Indonesian Election 2004, United States Elections Project, US Cencus Bureau.

1 comment:

  1. darling, di amerika popular vote kagak di hitung, jadi siapapun yang menang di popular vote belum tentu jadi president. karena yang milih adalah hantu blauk di electoral vote yang kagak ketahuan sapa dan merepresentasikan siapa...mangkanya orang sini kagak peduli sama pemilu karena mereka tidak benar2 memilih