Election debates might sway swing voters, analysts say

A recent survey, known for its reliability and independence, found that the number of undecided voters had increased from 15.4 per cent in August to 28.7 per cent in December.

Yerica Lai

Yerica Lai

The Jakarta Post


December 18, 2023

JAKARTA – The election debates might offer the presidential and vice presidential candidates a chance to sway a sizeable share of undecided voters, analyst say, but the question remains whether they will actually have any significant impact.

Tens of millions of Indonesians watched on Tuesday evening as the three presidential candidates Anies Baswedan, Prabowo Subianto and Ganjar Pranowo went head-to-head in the inaugural debate, presenting their policy stances in a bid to woo voters for a shot at succeeding President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo next year.

Tuesday’s event was the first of five election debates organized by the General Elections Commission (KPU) pitting either presidential or vice presidential rivals ahead of the ballot, which is set for Feb. 14, 2024.

The debates might influence undecided voters as well as change the minds of others, said Ujang Komarudin, a political analyst from Jakarta’s Al-Azhar University.

“With a significant share of undecided voters, the debates could offer both Ganjar and Anies a chance to boost their standing” in the opinion surveys, Ujang told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

According to the latest surveys, the two candidates are locked in a tight battle for a spot in a runoff election, which many pollsters and observers deem highly likely for next year’s three-horse race.

A recent survey by Kompas Research and Development Department (Litbang), the research arm of the national daily, found that Ganjar and his running mate Mahfud MD was tailing with an electability of 15.3 percent, slightly behind Anies and his running mate Muhaimin Iskandar at 16.7 percent.

Prabowo and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka led the survey at 39.3 percent.

But the Kompas survey, known for its reliability and independence, found that the number of undecided voters had increased from 15.4 percent in August to 28.7 percent in December.

Read also: Surveys show Ganjar, Anies locked in tight competition for runoff

The survey defined undecided voters as those who “don’t have ideological or emotional ties to a particular figure or candidate pair, […] have yet to decide who they will vote for and are still very susceptible to changing their choice”.

It also found that a sizeable share of undecided voters were comprised of several groups: women, voters in the age group of 41-60 years, rural voters and people whose highest education level was elementary school.

Another voter demographic that made up a large portion of undecided voters were Jokowi supporters who were affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

The country’s largest Muslim organization has become a magnet for candidates vying to win the vote in East Java, a battleground province on Indonesia’s most populous island.

Luring swing voters

But Kennedy Muslim, a researcher at pollster Indikator Politik, doubted that the debates would have a significant impact on undecided voters, especially rural, undereducated voters who were uninterested in politics.

Other credible surveys also found a sizeable share of “swing voters”, defined as voters who could still change their choice by next February and categorized separately from respondents who answered “don’t know” or returned an empty response.

The election debates could help such voters make up their minds, said Arya Budi, research director of pollster Poltracking Indonesia, who added that swing voters mostly came from the middle to upper classes and were better educated.

“This voter [group] has a tendency to look at candidates’ performance and programs,” Arya said, “so the debates could offer candidates a chance to sway them.”

The latest survey by Poltracking Indonesia, which accurately predicted the 2019 election results, found that swing voters were scattered across the three candidates: Prabowo had the highest appeal at 46.6 percent, followed by Ganjar at 23.8 percent and Anies at 23.3 percent.

An Indikator Politik survey in late November found that the Anies-Muhaimin pair had the largest share of supporters exhibiting uncertainty in their voter base, with 20.5 percent of respondents saying that they could still change their minds. The Ganjar-Mahfud pair followed close behind, with 19 percent of respondents from their voter base saying they could vote for someone else.

On the other hand, the Prabowo-Gibran pair had the largest share of core voters, or those who were unlikely to change allegiance, with only 16 percent of swing voters.

Read also: 2024 election could be nadir of women’s representation, say analysts

Both Kennedy and Arya noted, however, that swing voters who watched the debates were typically supporters who wanted to see how their candidate fared to “validate their choice”.

While they agreed in their views that the debates could affect the candidates’ electability, Arya still demurred, saying that the debates “might not have a significant impact” on the election as a whole.

Kennedy concurred, albeit with a disclaimer: “Unless candidates make a damaging blunder [during the debates], it’s unlikely that these [swing] voters will change their choice.”

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