Indonesia's local elections and the pandemic

By Dr Mada Sukmajati
Lecturer at the Department of Politics and Government, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Gadjah Mada University

Early this year, Indonesia was planning elections for regional heads in nine provinces, 224 districts and 37 municipalities on 23 September. Then Covid-19 happened.

Early this year, Indonesia was planning elections for regional heads in nine provinces, 224 districts and 37 municipalities on 23 September. Then Covid-19 happened. The elections have now been postponed to 9 December, but not without controversy.

What was the basis for the government’s decision to delay the elections until December? Will election organisers be sufficiently prepared to prevent the elections from contributing to another spike in Covid-19 cases? How can the key democratic principles of electoral participation and contestation be maintained in the middle of a pandemic?

Between politics and the economy

Two months ago, when it was clear that Indonesia had not got a handle on Covid-19, many suggested the regional elections would be better off delayed until 2021, because of the high risk of worsening the spread of Covid-19. Indonesia’s electoral bodies were divided. The General Elections Commission (KPU) wanted the elections to go ahead this year, while the Elections Supervisory Body (Bawaslu) said they should be delayed until 2021.

But the administration of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the national legislature (DPR) persisted with the plan to hold the elections on 9 December. The Ministry of Home Affairs said that the elections were a “national strategic program” and therefore had to be implemented as planned.

Minister of Home Affairs Tito Karnavian also said that in addition to their political role, the elections would boost regional economic growth. This is consistent with Jokowi’s position since the beginning of the pandemic, which has always emphasised economic recovery at the expense of strict disease control measures.

There is nothing inherently wrong with hoping for an economic boost from regional elections. However, focusing solely on the economic benefits of the election could lead to a lack of attention to the key values, principles and practices of democracy. It could lead to policymakers excusing the massive financial cost of holding the 2020 regional elections, or the large outlays made by individual candidates, and the widespread practices of “money politics” at the grassroots level. And it could make many more people sick.

Regulatory protections

There are several phases to the 2020 regional elections, beginning with the appointment of elections organisers at each level of administration and concluding with reporting and evaluation. At least two phases involve significant risks of increased transmission of Covid-19.

The first is the campaign period. In Indonesia, it is still common for campaigns to be held face-to-face, with a unidirectional flow of information from a candidate (or group of candidates) to the public. Campaign events are often held on a stage, sometimes accompanied by a dangdut show. The candidate’s supporters might then be invited to ride in a convoy of motorcycles and cars along a main street. This enables a candidate to gather a mass of supporters and make a ‘show of strength’ to gather more support or intimidate rivals.

The second major risk event is, of course, voting day. While the KPU originally planned for each polling station (TPS) to serve up to 800 voters, it has revised its plans, proposing a new limit of 500 voters. But this is still a large number of people and will still result in crowding of electors as they wait to vote. There have been discussions about introducing electronic voting but the KPU has decided to continue with manual voting, stating that its systems are not yet ready for e-voting.

Regulations on managing Covid-19 are evolving quickly, and often differ between the central and regional governments. The KPU has published a regulation (No. 6 of 2020) to respond to the risk of worsening the Covid-19 outbreak during the elections. A number of provisions relate to the campaign period. These include a requirement for all campaign participants to keep a distance of one metre apart, requirements for personal protective equipment (such as masks, single use gloves, and face shields), and a rule that public meetings can only be held in areas the government has declared free from Covid-19. The KPU has also suggested that candidates conduct their campaigns online.

Similar protocols will be adopted for voting, such as providing single-use gloves and masks for voters who lack them, and regular disinfecting of equipment at the TPS. As a result of these new measures, the KPU has said that the 2020 regional elections will require an additional Rp 4.7 trillion (AU$453 million) to run.

Regulations are one thing – implementing them in the field is another. Even if election bodies issue strong health protocols to control the spread of Covid-19 will they be observed in the field? The public has not shown much discipline in adhering to existing government protocols for the control of Covid-19.

Given this situation, the Minister of Home Affairs Tito has called on KPU and Bawaslu to issue firm sanctions against violators, including disqualifying candidates who do not observe protocols. KPU regulations do stipulate sanctions for people who violate protocols, but it plans to just issue a warning to violators, and coordinate with Bawaslu to issue sanctions. Unfortunately, Bawaslu is yet to release its regulations on supervision of the 2020 regional elections. It remains to be seen whether it will support clear and firm sanctions. If Bawaslu elects to leave this up to other existing regulations, then the process is likely to be ineffective.

Contestation and participation

In March, Bawaslu released its Election Vulnerability Index (IKP). In this report it identified several issues of potential concern: low voter turnout, partisanship of civil servants, lack of integrity and professionalism of election organisers, violations of electoral rules by candidates, and money politics.

These are the typical problems faced in every previous election – and government and elections organisers have never been able to find meaningful solutions to them. But there are several new concerns directly related to Covid-19.

One of these is the potential for social assistance (bantuan social, or bansos) to be misused for campaign activities, particularly by incumbents. Bansos is aid in the form of money or goods from the local government to local citizens. Bawaslu has identified several examples of social aid being politicised, for example, social aid being delivered with a photo of the regional leader or political party symbols. Without serious efforts to stop this, it will only get worse as voting day approaches.

In fact, there is enormous potential for an explosion in vote buying given that many Indonesian citizens have seen their personal finances suffer as a result of the pandemic. This will have significant impact for the quality of participation in the 2020 regional head elections.

There is much to be done to guarantee that local elections can be run successfully despite Covid-19 – efficiently, cleanly, safely, and with the active participation of all citizens. Efforts to strengthen the integrity and competency of election organisers are always essential, but even more so in the face of a global pandemic. Voters should not be left out of these efforts either. Political education and awareness is crucial at a time when candidates will try to take advantage of the pandemic to secure votes.

The government has not performed well so far in its response to Covid-19.  Let’s hope that has changed by 9 December, and people can choose their new leaders without risking their lives.

This article was co-published with the Indonesia at Melbourne blog.

Banner image: A woman prepares voting papers for an Indonesian election. Source: Aditya Pradana Putra via Antara.


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