Big Data and the Anies-Sandi Win
Category: Column By : Perry Nagle Read : 685 Date : Wednesday, August 02, 2017 - 10:08:59

Jakarta recently experienced a divisive gubernatorial election waged against a backdrop of extremist religious messages and sensational charges of blasphemy. The challenger ticket of Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno, two attractive, young candidates and both Muslim, handily defeated the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama. Ahok is ethnic Chinese and Christian, both minorities in Indonesia. The defeat of the popular Ahok has meant much hand wringing, introspection and apprehension in the global media and Indonesia’s international community.

The global media’s storyline was that “hardline Islamism” drove a non-Muslim from office. This is a compelling narrative. Indonesia is one of the few functional liberal democracies in the Muslim world, with over 200 million Muslims. With terrorism in Europe and the Trump administration targeting Muslims, extremist religious messaging would appear as an effort to stoke the electorate. This, combined with the controversial blasphemy case against the incumbent, resulted in “hardline Islamism” dominating the headlines.

Lost in the noise has been any real discussion of how the winners actually ran their campaign to win the vote. The Anies-Sandiaga ticket won a landslide 16-point victory in a two-round election against Ahok, who started the campaign with a 65% eligibility rating. Ahok ended up with just 42% of the vote. It is unclear that Jakarta voters overwhelmingly turned against the incumbent only because of the extremist religious messaging. In fact, there may be more to the story. Indonesia’s Islamist political parties have done poorly in recent polls, historically garnering under 10% of the national vote. This meager voting block does not translate into a 16-point win. Furthermore, the incumbent’s numbers were dropping well before religious issues arose in the campaign in late 2016.

That said, extremist religious messages were given a platform during the campaign and the nation’s blasphemy laws were turned against Ahok. These are frightening and destructive developments, worthy of intense public scrutiny. Yet a closer inspection of the Anies and Sandiaga (known as Sandi) campaign reveals one built on a foundation of fundamentally sound data, consistent messaging and extraordinary voter outreach. The hardline Islamist narrative may sell newspapers, but I would argue it was not the election’s determining factor. A strong argument can be made that Anies and Sandi have run the first modern, data-driven campaign in Indonesia’s history.

I worked with Sandi from the early planning for his campaign in 2015. He was a successful businessman, well regarded in Indonesian and the international circles—but largely an unknown for Jakartans. Modern campaigns are new to Indonesia. The process involves collecting data on what drives voters’ decisions, shaping a message on this data for the candidate, and getting that message to voters. Done properly, this approach helps the democratic process as it enhances the relationship between the public and candidates.

The campaign launched a baseline survey in late 2015 to understand where Sandi stood compared with other actual and potential candidates. The results were discouraging. Sandi’s electability was 0.4% and the incumbent at 65%. However, the incumbent’s weaknesses were in relation to constituents, and his blunt style. Voters liked his direct manner, but disliked that he overdid his attacks. His aggressiveness was an asset but became a liability when it became personal. The campaign also identified weaknesses in his policies. Voters were generally happy with his governance, but felt he focused too much on large projects, particularly infrastructure. 



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