Pandemic election in Indonesia

One example of polling station in Jogjakarta Photo credit: Wisnu M. Adiputra
Lukuaika: 6 min.

Despite the pandemic, Indonesia was able to hold elections last December. Many of the candidates were related to current politicians which sparked a national debate over nepotism.

On 9 December 2020, many voters in Indonesia showed a purple ink-mark on their fingers. This is the sign that they have voted in the recent elections. The voting day for the regional election to vote for 270 regional leaders in 2020 coincided with the International Anti-Corruption Day. Many Indonesians were proud to participate in a unique election held during a pandemic.

The election was originally supposed to be held on September 23rd, but due to the Covid19 pandemic, it was postponed until December, as stipulated by Presidential Decree no. 2/2020. The regional election on December 9th applied to 270 regions, in 9 provinces (electing governors), 224 districts (electing regents) and 37 cities (electing mayors).

In 2019, Indonesia’s election was “one of the biggest electoral moments in the world”, as it involved around 190 millions eligible voters.

As an election of this magnitude took place during a single day, it involved around 100 million voters. The election day was also a national holiday to celebrate democracy in the country.

Indonesia has been successful in administering tense but peaceful and democratic election in the previous years. In 2019, Indonesia’s election was “one of the biggest electoral moments in the world”, as it involved around 190 millions eligible voters. The most challenging variable for the elections undoubtedly was the Covid19 pandemic, as Indonesia has had over 592,900 cases since March 2020 and the number of new cases has kept on rising, with an additional 5292 cases per day.

The ink mark in one finger as a sign for someone had voted in Indonesia. Photo credit: Wisnu M. Adiputra

Preparing for an election in a pandemic

The election was run despite many people and Civil Society Organizations cautioning against it. Since September 2020, around 14 CSOs objected to organizing the election in the middle of pandemic, claiming it put “people’s life in danger and at stake”. The objection against spreading the virus was also raised by the two biggest Islamic mass organisations, the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. This is also notable because current vice-president Ma’aruf Amin belongs to Nahdlatul Ulama.

One CSO, Kemitraan, or Partnership for Governance Reform, suggested that it would be better to conduct the election at later time when the number of cases is more manageable.

The recent national wide survey by a reliable survey company, Saiful Munjani Research and Consulting (SMRC) also reported that around “77% voters are afraid they will get infected by the corona virus due to voting”. The election itself was at risk indeed as the number of cases was high overall, and around 45 regions were considered a “Red Zone” for corona cases. This meant that crowded voting locations could contribute further to the rising number of cases.

The election was run despite many people and Civil Society Organizations cautioning against it.

Government regulations seemed to lack the necessary political will to curb the chains of infections. For example, shopping malls and movie theatres were allowed to open, even while schools remained closed. This left many students frustrated, forced to study from home. Many students, especially from remote areas of Indonesia, prefer to study in schools, as internet connections or smart phones are not available.

As such, the elections were organized in troubled times. The election commission, KPU, distributed the message widely that with proper health protocol, such as wearing masks, physical distancing and washing hands, the election can be run smoothly. The KPU also committed to include all voters in self-isolation/quarantine at home and those infected with the virus in hospital by sending election workers to them, wearing the proper heath attire.

Problems soon arose when it was revealed that many election workers did not originally have the necessary or proper knowledge on how to deal with corona cases.

The election commission in its social media informs voters to use the voting right, even for those in hospital and with Covid19 cases. Photo credit: Instagram KPU RI

Indonesian elections during Covid19 pandemic

After a heated debate weighing the pros and cons of proceeding with an election that had already been postponed once, it was decided that the elections would go forward. The reason given was that political leaders had to have a direct mandate from the people, rather than being interim political appointees. Regardless of the pandemic, people enthusiastically participated in the election: the voter turnout is expected to reach 77%, and increase from the previous regional election in 2018, with a 73% turnout.

The polling stations were open between 7 am to 1 pm, and only conducted as in-person voting on that specific day, except for those situations when the election workers came to houses or hospitals – as promised. There is no mechanism of early voting or mail voting, introduced in Indonesia yet.

After a heated debate weighing the pros and cons of proceeding with an election that had already been postponed once, it was decided that the elections would go forward.

Various rules and regulations, such as washing hands before entering the polling station – some voting stations provided places to wash hands – wearing plastic gloves prepared in voting stations, and the placements of seats with wide spaces in between, were imposed at the voting stations. Wearing masks is obligatory in Indonesia during pandemic.

Overall, voters exercised their right to vote enthusiastically. Many people, even the elderly, came to cast their ballots despite the risks.

 

Politics of dynasty or nepotism?

Indonesian politics are typically highly contested: the 2019 elections featured rough and polarizing campaigning. Former political rivals – defense minister Prabowo Subianto and current president Joko Widodo – often called Jokowi – would still join the same cabinet.

Even though the election was held for the specific reason of deriving a mandate to political leaders from the voters, high political leaders also had a personal interest in the election. For example, the eldest son of the president, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, was running for mayor position in Solo, Central Java province. Additionally, his son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, was running for mayor in Medan, North Sumatra province.

In addition to the president’s family, the niece of the defense minister and a notable politician in the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Prabowo, Rahayu Saraswati, and the vice president Ma’ruf Amin’s daughter, Siti Nur Azizah, also competed in the mayoral race for the South Tangerang city, Banten province.

Both sons of President Jokowi, Gibran and Bobby have received national-wide media attention, far more than their competitors.

These names and races sparked national debate that famous national politicians intended to build political dynasties. This comes following the nomination of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono as a governor candidate of Jakarta back in 2017. Agus did not succeed but this was largely seen as his ticket for later to run as a presidential candidate.

Concerns over political dynasties may be premature, though, considering that it is too early for an Indonesian politician to build one within a single generation. However, what is more likely at stake is an increase of nepotism.

For example, both sons of President Jokowi, Gibran and Bobby have received national-wide media attention, far more than their competitors. Thus, it is no surprise that both gained the most votes in the early counting predictions and indeed both won the elections in respective regions.

 

The pandemic after the elections

The election had risen the number of corona cases in the country. Indeed, after the polling day, around 1,023 polling stations had infected with COVID-19, and 1,420 location of polling stations were not meet the required standards for observing physical-distance. These numbers were considered small from the whole number of 298,000 polling station, but the death of KPU chairperson in South Tangerang due to corona infection raised alarms for the vulnerability of polling workers in the station, meeting with hundreds of voters.

It will interesting to see if the elections after this exceptional year will result in stronger democratic accountability in Indonesia.

The election was recently discussed on a popular political talk-show, Mata Najwa, where the host raised a concern that the “election is just a formality, a political cycle that needs to be run, even when the virus is rampant and people’s lives are at stake”. Running an election during a pandemic is risky. To have so many political families in the race raises concerns of political expediency over health concerns.

This not helped by a minister of the current government getting caught for stealing from the government’s pandemic social support. The latest case is already a fourth case of ministers from Jokowi’s administration caught for corruption.

Public service for the people should mean more than gaining access to public funds. It will interesting to see if the elections after this exceptional year will result in stronger democratic accountability in Indonesia.

Ratih Adiputri (ratih.adiputri@jyu.fi) is a university lecturer at the University of Jyväskylä. Her research is including Indonesia and Southeast Asian politics/democracy, parliament and sustainable development goals.

 

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