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[Read directly on Magdalene.co]

by Jennie M. Xue

The 2017 Regional Elections next week, which is known by its Indonesian abbreviation as Pilkada, is the battleground for the so-called three-pronged “businesses of politics,” which comprise the candidates, the sponsors, and the political consultants. Their goal is to attract as many voters as possible with the help of thousands of offline and online “armies.”

If you think the candidates are the sole key to their electability, think again. Without their political consultants by their side, their electability can be limited to their actual deeds.

For instance, in 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Election, only Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama has ever actually performed as a governor, being the incumbent. The other two pairs (Agus Yudhoyono – Sylviana Murni and Anies Baswedan – Sandiaga Uno) have not, which could place them at a disadvantage, considering their “lack of actual experience” track record.

Fortunately, political consultants came to their rescue. Moreover, yes, this is a new profession that was popularized by the 2009 General Election that ended with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (who is known popularly by his initial SBY and who happens to be Agus’ father) as the country’s president. From that point onward, political consultants have become a multi-million dollar profession with consulting fees up to the roof. For those thirsty for power, ultra-high fees are not an issue.

So, what kind of “creature” is a political consultant? Why do people need to be aware of them? Moreover, how can voters see the candidates clearly beyond all the noise?

In the past, political consultants were known as public relations consultants, publicity experts, media experts, intellectuals-for-hire, or, even, paid researchers. Their day job can be in a public relations firm, a law firm, or a university. Today, they sit in their own “political consultant firm,” which is a hybrid creature of all the above.

It is like a one-stop shop of consulting services where a candidate can walk in and ask for his electability in a particular region and shop for a winning campaign. Upon the order, the consultant would conduct a preliminary survey, draw a campaign plan, and implement them with the assistance of hundreds or even thousands of offline and online foot soldiers.

This explains why many academics and public intellectuals in political science, public policy, law, and other social sciences and liberal arts consider presidential and regional elections a tremendous opportunity to milk cash from candidates and make a name for themselves. With the advancement of and convenience afforded by technologies, like inexpensive mobile phones, smartphone apps, and social media, a political consultant can perform a lot of good and – of course – harm to both the candidates and the voters.

In the United States, in 2012 only 50 consulting firms handled 75 percent of all consulting services in federal campaigns. They spent approximately US$50 million each in the campaign purchasing ads, direct mails, and digital services.

One of the most successful political consultants was Mentzer Media, which handled $1 billion in media buys in 2012. Assuming 10 to 15 percent commission received from the media networks, they could have earned anywhere from $100 to $150 million in commission alone.

GMMB, a top Democratic media firm, handled $435 million in spending in 2012, the majority of which came from Obama campaign. It was estimated that $6 billion had been spent by both Obama and Romney’s corners. Compared to those, the amount being handled in the regional election in Jakarta must be considerably lower, but the noise created is significant nonetheless.

It is important that voters recognize the sources of noises, including “unknown individuals” using various social media accounts and articles written to influence voters. Both white and black campaigns need to be scrutinized before you trust them.

But how can voters see the candidates clearly beyond all the noises?

First, recognize the premise of the message and which candidate would benefit from it.

Second, recognize the quality of the message. The most sophisticated political consultant can orchestrate something wicked to sound and look natural and innocent.

At last, use your clear conscience and best judgment when being bombarded by campaign noises. The rise of the political consulting industry is a part of democracy, alongside which we can all become more mature. Just be careful whom you vote for and where those noises come from. You must vote for the one that can bring the best to our people, and you must never vote based on a candidate’s religion or ethnicity.

Stay peaceful and calm in the week before the regional election day.

Jennie M. Xue is an award-winning author, columnist, and independent intellectual based in Northern California. Her virtual home is JennieXue.com. 

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