REGIONAL ELECTIONS 2020: Voting in the midst of a pandemic

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Illustration: Agung Wahyudi/IO

IO – The 2020 simultaneous regional election (Pilkada) was finally held on December 9, 2020. The political decision of the government, House’s Committee II, and election organizers has been controversial from the start. When the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Indonesia in early March 2020, the General Elections Commission (KPU) was already in the early stages of organizing the 2020 Pilkada. But at that time the election was initially scheduled for September 23, 2020. Covid-19 disrupted election schedule not only in Indonesia, but also other countries forcing them to reconsider whether the elections should be postponed. 

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) came up with guidelines on whether an election should be postponed or continue to be held during a pandemic. A number of considerations include: Is it against the constitution? Is it urgent? Does it pose a risk to society? Is there any facility or infrastructure built to deal with the risk? Is there any possible alternative to the voting process? Does the voting public prefer it to be postponed or carried on as scheduled? 

International IDEA also provides recommendations for the decision-making process, including that it must be communicated and discussed between relevant agencies, conducted in compliance with the law, prioritize community safety and consider security risks and the significance of the democratic process, logistical challenges, voting arrangement, the work of the election organizers, and so on. If the election will go on as scheduled, how can the risks be mitigated? If it is to be postponed, what are the necessary steps? 

Regulatory loopholes 

The Kofi Annan Foundation stated that the main thing that needs to be considered when holding an election amid the pandemic is a strong legal basis. The complex administration of an election during a tough situation cannot be simply left to the election organizers. This is because in making the election regulations, KPU has to refer to existing laws. So that if the law still regulates the technical implementation of election in a normal situation, the KPU cannot come up with more innovative regulations. For example, regarding voting procedures. Voters still need to come to the polling station. There are no other options available to vote by mail, early voting, or mobile ballot boxes. 

Another issue is the absence of sanctions that can generate strong deterrent effect for violators of health protocols. Many members of the public demanded that violators of health protocols be disqualified. However, this cannot be done because there is no such provision in the election law. Law No. 10/2016 on Regional Election stipulates that disqualification can only be done to, for example, perpetrators of money politics. 

As a result, violators of health protocols will only receive warning if the number of campaign partici- pants exceed 50 people. If the warning is not heeded by the campaign team, then campaign activities can be dispersed, and if this still happen, the candidates may not carry out the same campaign method for three consecutive days. This sanction certainly does not give a deterrent effect because the candidates may repeat it after then. Data from the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) shows that nearing the end of the campaign, mass campaign rallies are getting more frequent and more dispersal sanctions were issued by Bawaslu. 

One of the indicators that an election is held according to democratic principles is its predictable process, unpredictable result. This means that every stage of the election must be predictable and have legal certainty, while the election results should not be predictable at the outset. Election organizers, especially those in the regions, should not be distracted by confusing and sometimes contradictory legal provisions as this may adversely impact their vital work to ensure the democratic process runs smoothly. 

Lessons from other countries As of December 5, 2020, 75 countries and territories have decided to postpone their elect ions , whether national or local elections, or referendums. On the other hand, 93 countries held their elections in the midst of a pandemic. So the government’s logic goes: if other countries can hold elections in the midst of a pandemic, why can’t Indonesia? 

There are several lessons that we can learn from other countries which also held their elections during the pandemic. Key takeaway is that it is feasible but it doesn’t come easy or cheap. However, it may also influence voter turnout, add to the complexities, impact certain voters (vulnerable groups or overseas voters), influence political campaigning, and affect the legitimacy of the results. 

Voter turnout varied in other countries: some saw higher voter turnout compared to pre-pandemic level, others saw the opposite. The former included South Korea, Singapore and Bavaria (part of Germany). Among other things that increased voter turnout in these countries are special voting arrangements that voters can opt from, so they don’t have to come to the polling stations. These included postal voting, early voting, or mobile ballot boxes. In South Korea, the voting age was reduced from 19 to 18. In Singapore, every citizen with the right to vote is obliged to cast their vote. 

Election amid pandemic also affects certain voters, such as vulnerable groups, and in the context of the pandemic, those who have to be quarantined in hospital due to being infected with Covid-19. This is one of the many complexities faced. In a number of countries, voters who are undergoing self-isolation are not allowed to vote due to physical distancing policy in these countries, for example in South Korea and Singapore. There are also countries that impose proxy voting (cast on behalf of another) such as in Spain and Croatia. 

Key takeaways 

Covid-19 has impacted elections everywhere. Organizing a simultaneous local election in the midst of a pandemic is neither easy nor cheap. This requires a legal framework that can be more adaptive. Special voting arrangement is one of the things that should be encouraged, so that voters have options to cast their votes. This will also reduce crowd size in polling stations which may increase the risk of Covid-19 transmission. 

No less importantly is how the government handles the pandemic. If it is done properly, there will be heightened sense of security in the community which will encourage people to participate in the election. Participation doesn’t only mean voters coming to the polling stations, but also their involvement in other stages of the election. As physical distancing has been enforced, monitoring and oversight by the local population has become less effective. This runs counter to the principle of democracy which guarantees that the public can effectively participate in governance. 

We don’t want the election to become merely a five-year ritual. Not only must the democracy be healthy, the health of voters, election administrators and election participants should also be of paramount importance.

Monitoring results

A coalition of civil society organizations, comprising Perludem, NETGRIT, Kode Inisiatif, KISP, Netfid, and JaDI have monitored the election, focusing on three aspects, namely, health protocols, voting process, and electronic vote recapitulation system (Sirekap). A total of 93 monitors were posted across the regencies/cities of Bantul, Kaur, Agam, Banjar, Sleman, Mandailing Natal, Depok, North Labuhan Batu, South Konawe, Maros, Gunung Sitoli, Trenggalek, Blitar, Gowa, South Tangerang, Bandung, Sijunjung, Bukittinggi, South Pesisir, Ketapang, Semarang, Tomohon, South Bolaang Mongondow, Sangihe Islands, Ternate, Mojokerto, Grobogan, Humbang Hasundutan, Klaten, South Nias and South Minahasa.

The results show that the health protocol aspects are overall good but not very significant. For example, on the location of polling stations, 54.8% of respondents stated that they are located in an open space. Furthermore, out of 93 respondents, 93.5% stated that the polling stations had met the standards and procedures prescribed in the health protocols. On the compliance of election supervisors and witnesses from candidates on the observance of health protocols, the results showed that 95.7% of supervisors and 91.4% of witnesses had complied with health protocols.

Nevetherless, the monitor salso found that in certain places there were still mass gatherings at the polling stations: 16.1%. This figure is worrying becaue it can become a superspreader event. Apart from the health protocol aspect, monitoring on e-recapitulation shows that based on the preliminary data, 65.7% of e-recapitulation system malfuntioned or was experiencing technical difficulties. This was confirmed by an incident of a e-recapitulation server unable to be accessed at 14.30.

This showed that the use of Sirekap was problematic. Of the 65.7% reported issues, 57% related to the failure of the application to open. This also presented challenges to the tallying process, where 71.4% of monitors found that local poll administrators (KPPS) had difficulty sending photos and vote tallies through the system. The success rate was only 28.6%. The data were taken from 35 respondents at the regencies/cities of Sintang, Sijunjung, Surabaya, Sangihe Islands, Bantul, Sleman, Mojokerto, Depok, North Labuhan Batu, Gunung Sitoli, Ternate, South Nias, Trenggalek, Kaur, Ternate, and South Minahasa.

Elite candidates

Judging from the profiles of the candidates contesting the 2020 Pilkada, nothing has changed from the candidacy requirements. To contest in the regional election, a candidate can go through two paths, namely, individual candidate or political party candidate. They are both prohibitive. To clinch a political party nomination, one must be able to gather the support of 20% of the Regional Legislative Council (DPRD) seats or 25% of the votes in the previous election. It is rare for a single party to nominate its own candidate because of this tough requirement. This forces them to build a coalition with other parties. Should one choose to become an independent candidate, the requirements are similarly taxing. One must gather the support from around 6.5% -10% of the total number of voters in the region.

The high bar for nomination resulted in many candidates coming from the elite as can be seen from the profile of the candidates in the 2020 Pilkada. One can see many familiar faces who belong to the elite circle.

This year’s Pilkada also shows more regions with sole candidates. This has increased compared to the previous Pilkada. In the 2015 Pilkada, there were only three regencies with sole candidates, namely, Blitar, Tasikmalaya, and North Central Timor. In 2017 Pilkada, sole candidates were found in nine regencies/cities, namely Tebing Tinggi, West Tulang Bawang, Pati, Landak, Buton, Central Maluku, Jayapura, Tambrauw, and Sorong. In the 2018 Pilkada, it increased to 16, namely: Deli Serdang, Southeast Minahasa, North Padang Lawas, Enrekang, Prabumulih, Makassar, Pasuruan, Mamasa, Lebak, Central Membramo, Tangerang Regency, Tangerang City, Puncak, Jayawijaya, Tapin, and Bone. And this year there were 25, namely Humbang Hasundutan, Gunung Sitoli, Pematangsiantar, Pasaman, Ogan Komering Ulu, South Ogan Komering Ulu, North Bengkulu, Boyolali, Kebumen, Semarang, Sragen, Wonosobo, Kediri, Ngawi, Badung, West Sumbawa, Balikpapan, Kutai Kartanegara, Gowa, Soppeng, Central Mamuju, South Manokwari, Arfak, and Raja Ampat.

Previous regional elections have shown sole candidates won in almost all regions. The defeat only happened in Makassar City in the 2018 Pilkada and as a result it has to be repeated this year. Sole candidacy means that the public have no alternative options. The only choices are between the sole candidate or ‘blank box’. Sole candidacy may occur because the coalition consists of all parties or almost all parties resulting in certain parties unable to nominate their candidate because they fail to meet the requirements. Sole candidacy is certainly not ideal in a democracy as there will be no dialogue in the community and the public cannot scrutinize the vision, mission and programs of the candidates because there is only one candidate. Democracy should bring out competition through elections.

Furthermore, this year’s regional election was also marked with kinship/dynastic politics. As the Constitutional Court allows kinship politics, what the people can do is to prevent its adverse effects which may lead to uneven playing field because of the potential of abuse of power. This may happen because the party will nominate a candidate based on popularity, elite connection, and financial capability. As a result, those with close ties to party elites will be at an advantage. It is not uncommon for people who are long-time party cadres to be defeated by those with kin relationship to party elite. Of course this is not healthy for democracy.

Internal democracy in political parties has been lacking. Regeneration and recruitment in political parties has not been based on a merit system. Those who are nominated by the party are people with great popularity. Party elites still play outsized role. Internal reforms within political parties are sorely needed, undertaking democratization in party internals. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) have been promoting the the Political Party Integrity System (SIPP), which includes regeneration with integrity, recruitment with integrity, organizational ethics, and improvement of political party financing with greater transparency and accountability.

Possible election outcome

So what about the results of the 2020 Pilkada? Have the elites and kinship politics managed to win this time? Based on the quick count results from a number of pollsters, in several regions the winners are those already predicted to win.

In Surakarta and Medan, where President Joko Widodo’s son and son-in-law also contested, they both won according to quick counts. Although both are considered “political newbies“, they handily won the election. Although both of them announced that their joining the politics was a matter of personal choice, it could not be denied that Joko Widodo’s big name was one the determining factors in their victory. Moreover, both of them are already popular compared to other candidates.

In the 25 regions with sole candidates, they are also highly likely to win. This happens because the voters are not given a choice. Lack of equal treatment can also be a factor. There tends to be a bias among election organizers who are more focused on the sole candidates while failing to inform the voters that they can also vote for a blank box.

There are also incumbents who are likely to be reelected based on quick count results in Depok, South Tangerang, and Karawang. Incumbent does have an advantage when it comes to reelections. First, they are already popular in the community, so there is no longer need to “market” themselves from scratch. Second, their programs during the previous term may have been implemented and can be used to demonstrate the success of their leadership. This means that they are already one step ahead compared to non-incumbent candidates.

This year’s Pilkada is different as it is held during an unprecedented public health crisis. The hope is that the victors will not only see this election as a chance to amass votes but are able to work immediately after being inaugurated especially in dealing with the pandemic in their respective regions. They should not be preoccupied by quid pro quo attempt to “repay” the political parties that support them. It is noteworthy that the 2020 Pilkada coincided with the International Anti-Corruption Day. Hopefully this can be a momentum for the elected regional heads to maintain a commitment in eradicating corruption in their regions. (Khoirunnisa Nur Agustyati)

Khoirunnisa Nur Agustyati is the executive director of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem). She graduated from the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Indonesia in 2006 and obtained her Master’s degree from University of Indonesia in 2015. She began her career as a researcher with the Centre for Electoral Reform (CENTRO).