Neither fair, nor impartial

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – A few years ago, an international research project, the World Values Survey, undertook the massive task of interviewing 400,000 people in almost 100 countries.   Studying global trends and changes in beliefs and values on topics such as religion, economic development and gender equality, the surveyors found some interesting insights on how people view democracy.

One interesting finding from the survey was that more than ninety percent of the respondents said they believed democracy was the best way to govern a country.  This is good news yet hardly surprising:  given a choice between different types of political systems, we instinctively know most people would logically opt for being part of a free society.

The next finding of the survey was, however, truly alarming—while the majority of people want democracy, they also don’t trust democratic institutions and politicians.   The same research group, which has conducted the survey since 1981, has noted that the long-term trend for the public’s trust in government and their leaders has been on a downward trajectory for over a decade.

Indonesia is no exception.  Domestic surveys have consistently shown that Indonesians have a lowly opinion of their government.  Corruption in high places is rampant, an issue that voters say they care about but rarely see any improvement—Transparency International, an NGO that carries out annual surveys on corruption, published in its most recent survey that while corruption at the national level has leveled off over the past few years, it has spiked at the local government level.  Small wonder, then, that trust is sorely lacking.

Now, even members of the National Election Commission, or KPU, is suspect of being compromised by vested interests.  Tasked with ensuring Indonesia’s elections are free and fair, the KPU, which is supposed to be an independent agency and hence impartial, has done little if anything after it was recently disclosed the new voter registration list—which was created by the Home Affairs Ministry—includes nine million voters who, incredulously, share the same birth date.  Simple statistics would lead even the least sophisticated of voters to conclude this is a nearly impossible coincidence.

Unfortunately, improbable voter rolls are not the only problem.  KPU’s reputation was further damaged when it announced recently that mentally ill people will be allowed for the first time to cast their votes.   While universal suffrage is a hallmark of democracy, giving voter rights to people with cognitive and emotional disabilities also carries the responsibility of overseeing how they are registered and directed on voting day.  It is not difficult to imagine how those in power could exploit state-run mental institutions for corrupt purposes

Adding insult to insanity, the KPU has also changed the format of the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential debates in a manner that could be described best as a ‘dumbing down’ of the electoral process.

Unlike in previous debates, candidates will no longer be given the opportunity to present their vision and mission statements, or platforms.  This is a shame.  It is normal practice in most democracies for candidates to be given public media time to present their platforms.  Without it, voters have little to base their judgments on the candidates, on whether their priorities and proposed solutions are aligned with what people care about most and would like their leaders to do.

Even worse, the KPU has broken with its past practice of not pre-disclosing its questions with candidates.  In a bizarre twist, the KPU has announced it will prepare twenty questions and share them with the candidates before the debates.  Then, before the debates are kicked off on national television, the KPU will randomly select three of the twenty questions to be answered by the candidates.

The drawbacks for a such a format are obvious.   By pre-disclosing the  questions, the spontaneity of the debates is completely lost.  Instead of seeing how quickly the candidates can think on their feet and offer reasonable arguments, now voters will have to listen to carefully prepared answers. Unless the KPU is persuaded to change its format for the debates, of which there will be four in the run-up to the April elections, voters will have been entertained to a cocktail of twelve questions for each of the candidates.   One must wonder what voters will learn, if anything, about their candidates.

In truth, the new format proposed by the KPU does not even closely resemble a debate—will, for example, the incumbent be asked to defend his track record since first coming into office nearly five years ago?  Will each of the candidates be given the opportunity to address and challenge each other?   Apparently not, which means that rather than being a debate, what we will be really watching is a carefully scripted quiz show.

Whether or not the KPU can be convinced to change its methods remains to be seen.  But what needs to be done is clear.

Above all else, the KPU should take the initiative to audit the voter registration list.  Double entries and dead voters on the list need to be quickly identified and purged.   If not, the electoral authorities should be prepared to answer questions about their failure to carry out their fiduciary duties in providing voters with fair elections.

The KPU should also, at the very least, resort back to its previous format for the presidential debates.   It could even improve upon its format by allowing the candidates to spar with each other.   Treating voters with better content is not only fair, it also means making way for a better democracy.