Why Indonesia's 'democracy festival' is sparking super spreader fears

Mayoral candidate Gibran Rakabuming, the eldest son of President Joko Widodo, speaks alongside his running mate Teguh Prakosa during an election debate for mayor and deputy mayor in Solo on Nov 6.
PHOTO: Reuters

More than 100 million people are eligible to vote in Indonesia’s regional elections on Wednesday (Dec 2), making it one of the largest such events in the world during this pandemic year.

Critics and health experts have expressed concerns that the elections could turn into a super-spreader event, exacerbating the health crisis in the world’s fourth most populous nation.

The elections will be held to select leaders in 270 regions – nine provinces, 224 regencies, and 37 municipalities – and are the largest regional elections to date in Indonesia.

The government has again set Dec 9 as a public holiday, as it did for the presidential election last year, reflecting the country’s moniker for the one-day election event – pesta demokrasi, or “democracy festival”.

Vote counting is expected to wrap up on Dec 20.

Why didn’t the authorities delay the election?

Health experts and influential groups including the two largest moderate Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, called on the government to cancel the elections because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, the government in June decided to push the date back from September to Dec 9.

President Joko Widodo’s spokesman, Fadjroel Rachman, said in September that the elections could not be delayed further because the government wanted to “preserve the people’s constitutional rights to vote and to be voted into a public office”.

Read Also
Jokowi's son's run for mayor sparks talk of newest Indonesian dynasty
Jokowi's son's run for mayor sparks talk of newest Indonesian dynasty

Jakarta is also aiming to showcase to the international community that Indonesians are capable of holding a major election even amid the pandemic, with voters complying with stringent health measures.

However, the General Elections Supervisory Agency, or Bawaslu, said on Friday (Dec 4) that there had been 2,584 violations of health measures since campaigning started on Sept 26 until it ended on December 4.

More than 124,000 campaign events or activities were held in person, despite the agency’s plea that only virtual campaigning be done.

Although some election contenders did indeed use virtual campaigns, mostly through such platforms as the video-sharing app TikTok and videoconference app Zoom, some of the digital campaigns were hindered by the country’s poor internet connections.

In the week of Nov 15 to 24, Bawaslu recorded only 116 online campaign activities, compared with over 18,000 face-to-face activities such as rallies and door-to-door campaigning.

How bad is the coronavirus situation?

As of Monday ( Dec 7), Indonesia had recorded over 581,000 coronavirus cases and more than 17,000 virus-linked deaths, the highest caseload and death toll in Southeast Asia .

As of Oct 23, at least four candidates had passed away from Covid-19, and at least 60 others had tested positive for the disease.

Nine months into the pandemic, Indonesia has not even recorded the end of the so-called “first wave” of the virus, as there has been no lull in transmissions since the initial outbreak, with the country now recording around 5,000 new coronavirus cases per day.

The situation is so perilous that a Covid-19 cemetery in eastern Jakarta has run out of space for Muslim graves, with the latest casualties being stacked on top of older bodies in the same graves in some instances.

Read Also
Jakarta governor contracts Covid-19 as Indonesia infections spike
Jakarta governor contracts Covid-19 as Indonesia infections spike

As of Sunday, the occupancy rate for isolation rooms in hospitals in Jakarta was at 79 per cent, while in Bandung, West Java, the occupancy rate was over 87 per cent.

Similarly dire situations have been reported elsewhere, such as in the cities of Yogyakarta, Depok, and Kediri.

Over 340 doctors, nurses, dentists, and health staff have died countrywide,  according to the latest data from Indonesian Doctors Association.

Epidemiologists have said that regional elections could spark new Covid-19 clusters, as political rallies of fewer than 100 people are still allowed.

The election commission (KPU) was under fire last week after it announced on social media that Covid-19 patients could still vote from their hospital beds, underlining the authorities’ drive to include all eligible voters, no matter the risks.

What health protocols have been put in place?

The KPU has set up a number of health protocols for all 298,939 ballot stations in Wednesday’s elections.

Each station must install a handwashing facility and provide hand sanitiser and plastic gloves for voters. Staff will be provided with medical gloves, face shields, medical bins, disinfectants, personal protective equipment and body temperature gauges.

Instead of the usual finger dipping in a bottle of ink, to show that a person has voted, a staff member at each ballot station staff will place a drop of ink on a voter’s finger instead.

There will also be a booth for voters whose body temperatures are above 37.3 deg C (99.1 deg F). Meanwhile two elections staff, wearing protective gear will bring the ballot box to hospitalised Covid-19 patients.

What are the key races to watch?

Concerns about dynastic politics – where a candidate is related to an existing political figure – as well as the use of identity politics to gain votes have resurfaced in these elections.

For example, the eldest son of Widodo, Gibran Rakabuming, is running in Solo, Central Java, for the mayoral seat that allowed the president to carve a name for himself. The mayoral contest in Medan, North Sumatra, features Widodo’s son-in-law Bobby Nasution.

Read Also
Muslim-majority Indonesia votes in its biggest-ever election
Muslim-majority Indonesia votes in its biggest-ever election

In 25 races, candidates are running unopposed. In such cases, the ballots must feature a so called empty box that voters are free to tick, and if the empty box “wins”, a temporary regional head will take the office until the next election.

This has happened before, such as during the mayoral race for the city of Makassar in South Sulawesi in 2018.

Other races to watch are in Surabaya, South Kalimantan, West Sumatra, South Tangerang and Makassar, which features a rematch of the 2018 mayoral race between Munafri Arifuddin, the nephew of former vice-president Kalla, and former incumbent Danny Pomanto. In 2018, Munafri was able to have Danny, a more popular candidate, disqualified.

Munafri then ended up running against an empty box, and lost. Since that time, Makassar has had an interim mayor, who was appointed by Indonesia’s interior minister.

In the West Sumatra gubernatorial election, the contest touches on the issue of religion: A candidate named Mulyadi is seen as a pluralist, while one of his contenders, Mahyeldi Ansharullah, is running on an Islamic party’s ticket.

Mulyadi, however, has been named as a suspect by Indonesian police due to his alleged campaigning ahead of the official schedule – a violation of regional elections law.

The mayoral race in South Tangerang, in Banten province, involves three heirs of political dynasties: Siti Nur Azizah, daughter of vice-president Ma’ruf Amin; Rahayu Saraswati Djojohadikusumo, niece of defence minister and former presidential contender Prabowo Subianto; and Pilar Saga Ichsan, a relative of the powerful extended family dominant in provincial politics.

Surabaya’s mayoral race features an elite-backed police general running against a candidate backed by a beloved outgoing mayor, while in the gubernatorial election in South Kalimantan, a coal industry-backed incumbent will fight for five more years of power against a former anti-corruption activist.

What else is at stake in the elections?

Human rights group Kontras said during a webinar on Monday that the issues of race, ethnicity and religion were still being used in the current elections, though not as intensely as in last year’s presidential election, since pandemic-related concerns are taking centre stage this year.

Kontras said it had recorded at least 29 incidents of violence during the election campaigning period between September and the first week of December – mostly instances of intimidation by candidates’ campaigns towards voters.

Read Also
Indonesia election rivals toil in 'war rooms' to check ballots
Indonesia election rivals toil in 'war rooms' to check ballots

Indonesia’s communications ministry said that it had shut down over 200 websites during the same period, 15 of which had uploaded racially and religiously charged content to attack particular candidates.

Kontras said that misinformation about race and religion being circulated during the elections could pose a risk for “minority groups that would become more vulnerable after the election is over”.

The regional elections also could determine the outcome of 2024 presidential elections, as party-linked regional leaders could rack up votes from their region for the party’s presidential ticket. Widodo will not be able to run again, and some political figures from rival parties have been tipped as potential candidates, including Widodo’s two-time presidential contender rival, Prabowo Subianto.

For Widodo’s PDI-P party, a massive win in this year’s regional elections could help it sustain its grip on power after the current leader steps down from heading the world’s third-largest democracy.

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.