Image Construction in Politics: Political Advertisement in the 2009 Indonesian Election

By Prasetyawan, Wahyu | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Image Construction in Politics: Political Advertisement in the 2009 Indonesian Election


Prasetyawan, Wahyu, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The 2009 elections marked the second time the presidential contest was determined by popular vote. The increasing intertwining of television and politics has made it necessary for presidential candidates to design political campaigns which leverage on paid commercial advertising aired on television. In the United States, the modern political campaign's "language of politics" has become synonymous with television, the vocabulary of which comprises carefully crafted words and immaculately constructed images which take on great meaning and significance, often in place of substantial debate over policies (Biocca 1991, p. 4; see also Kaid 1999; Combs 1991). In Indonesia, electoral politics is the on-going competition of symbols, messages, and images (see Edelman 1967 and 1985; Vavreck 2009; Kaid and Chanslor 2004). In the case of Asia, Chua (2008, p. 8) argues that the image has "pervasive visibility" because crowd-pulling activities such as cultural or political performances create news which are transformed into strong visual images by the mass media to be consumed by mass audiences. Ina similar vein, Heryanto (2008, p. 5) notes that the power of television images over voters made it a matter of necessity for politicians and even presidential candidates such as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to go on television during the 2004 elections.

Unsurprisingly, the rise and influence of paid televised political advertising has led to a greater concern with persona and image, thus resulting in political candidates expending more time and energy cultivating a favourable public image than on substantially discussing policy issues to win votes. In fact the texture and tone of the candidates' self-constructed public image often reflects their perception of the political and social desires of the country. More importantly, the candidates surveyed preferred to project nationalist qualities, as well as empathy for the poor by using a variety of imagery, symbols, and music in their advertisements. This is unlike political advertisements in the United States, particularly for presidential elections, which have been found to emphasize economic issues. For example Bill Clinton focused on recession, job creation and health care (Maisel and Brewer 2008, p. 364), while Obama addressed tax and spending (Kenski, Hardy and Jamieson 2010, p. 50). In short, while the cultivation of a public persona through the medium of television is not unusual, there are national specificities such the United States' emphasis on the economy and social values, and Indonesian emphasis on the candidates' personal character and love of nation.

Political Campaigns and Television in Indonesia

Political campaigns in Indonesia have had a long history. They can be traced to the Dutch colonial period of the late 1920s where the Sarekat Islam (SI), a priburni organization, in Solo heavily depended on mass rallies and print media to attract audiences (Shiraishi 1990, p. 49). Shiraishi (1990) argues that such mass rallies and print media greatly accelerated SI's expansion, attracting pribumi to challenge Dutch colonial rule. Mass rallies depended very much on a political leader's ability to appeal to audiences such as Tjokroaminoto, for example, who was an unrivaled orator with his "deep penetrating baritone voice" (Shiraishi 1990, p. 49).

When Indonesia declared its independence in August 1945 and held elections for the first time in 1955, twenty-eight parties shared relatively similar political campaigns and employed the same medium. Political meetings were a common campaign strategy and were convened at various levels of cities, regencies and villages. There were different kinds of political meetings such as meetings for women and youth, lecture meetings, film meetings, and meetings for religious festivals (Feith 1971, p. 21). Though various parties used political speeches, this method was not very effective because the audience had to walk long distances to attend.

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