by Joseph Sipalan and Pathma Subramaniam
The Malay Mail Online
May 26, 2014
Running a smear campaign is arguably the best way to gain traction in a political contest, analysts say amid a storm of negative publicity muddying the Teluk Intan by-election campaigning.
Political analyst Prof James Chin said running down an opponent – typically through hired guns such as bloggers and cyber troopers – is an effective strategy to capture the public’s imagination.
“Whether we like it or not, in reality, negative campaigning works because it means we can’t stop thinking about it. It has a residual effect,” he told The Malay Mail Online when contacted.
“For instance, the bikini photo of Dyana. If someone asks you if you have seen it and if you haven’t, it would immediately trigger your attention to look for it and see it for yourself,” he said, referring to DAP’s Teluk Intan candidate Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud.
“And it will always stick to your mind, it will affect the way they vote, though many may not admit that it affects them.”
Smear tactics have been a regular feature on the Teluk Intan campaign trail heading towards polling day this May 31, with Dyana Sofya bearing the brunt of it.
Posters featuring her image alongside a bikini-clad actress – with whom the 26-year-old shares a striking facial resemblance – were farmed out at predominantly Malay residential areas in Changkat Jong, including at a mosque.
BN candidate and Gerakan President Datuk Mah Siew Keong was not spared, with social media users sharing a picture of the 53-year-old standing very close behind a woman, as if he were touching her sexually.
Chin, attached to Monash University, claimed that it is typical for the campaign office of any political party to engage “contractors” to execute smear campaigns without any direct link to the party.
“There is no such thing as a clean campaign. It is an oxymoron. In my professional opinion as a professor in political science, I can tell you that in the history of all elections in the world, there is no such thing as a clean campaign,” he said.
Independent expert Khoo Kay Peng, however, argued that political parties nowadays have far less control over such campaigns as they would like, especially in dealing with overzealous supporters empowered by communication technology and social media.
“This is an age where campaigns are no longer in the hands of campaign managers and candidates. Campaigning using the latest technology is something you cannot control.
“Today you can participate in the campaign without having to be in Teluk Intan,” he said.
Ibrahim Suffian, who heads independent pollster Merdeka Centre, noted that such campaigns by overly enthusiastic supporters could potentially cause more harm than good to their candidate of choice.
“The people running these so-called black-ops or psy-wars, they think they will help gain the advantage. They are probably not getting the intelligence or information, because academic studies have proven that in the past, when you run a negative campaign it tends to depress the (voter) turnout.
“You will end up losing the interest of people who may otherwise give a second look at the candidates contesting,” he said.
Nevertheless, both Ibrahim and Khoo believe that smear tactics only work as far as they are allowed to capture the public’s imagination.
While it would require everyone from the public and the media to the parties and candidates themselves to play an active part, Khoo said the most effective solution is to shift the focus to policy matters and how well candidates can speak out in the public’s interests.
Ibrahim said this is best done through public debates where electoral hopefuls can put across their ideas on how to serve their prospective constituents.
“Candidates should really display their grasp of issues, outline what they can do, how to address concerns of the public and help the local council be more effective… this brings maturity and a sense of public participation in the whole process,” he said.