Pressure Test in the Age of New Normal: Indonesia’s Pilkada 2020

Despite rising COVID-19 infections, Indonesia is set to conduct simultaneous regional elections in December 2020. Credit: SP/Muhammad Reza


The concern that Indonesia’s 2020 simultaneous regional elections (Pemilihan Kepala Daerah 2020, hereafter Pilkada) will breed new COVID-19 clusters have become an increasingly regular topic as the government pushes on with its 9 December 2020 schedule. Originally slated on 23 September 2020, calls to its further delay have not been entertained despite the pandemic spreading with little signs of respite. Consequently, this might not bode well to Indonesia’s image.

Elections during a Flat Curve – Does Indonesia Qualify?

To be fair, Indonesia is not the only country facing political pressures in this pandemic. Countries such as Japan, Singapore, Mongolia and Malaysia (Pahang by-election) have had to organise elections despite the trepidation over potential election clusters. Apart from Malaysia, these examples serve as indications that elections can indeed be conducted without severe consequences.

Adhy Aman pointed out that such success is largely due to these elections taking place when the infection curve was flat in these countries. If elections were held during a steep rise in the curve, the outcome would likely be undesirable. Case in point: Malaysia’s most recent election in Sabah was held while local cases were stacking up – it is now considered as the inception point of the current infection wave in the country.

Yet, this warning may likely be unheeded as Indonesia appears unfazed by the development in Negeri Jiran (neighbouring country). Unlike the examples above, Indonesia has been unable to flatten its curve with 365,240confirmed COVID-19 cases and 12,617 fatalities at the time of writing. Further fuelling this anxiety is the fact that Pilkada 2020 will be held in nine provinces, 224 districts and 37 cities stretching from Sumatera to Papua, thus risking potential new outbreaks all over the country if risks are not minimized.

Indonesia definitely cannot afford new clusters, as hospitals are worryingly reaching maximum capacity and over 200 medical officers have died from the virus.

In spite of that, Pilkada-linked cases have emerged long before voting day. Candidates are reported to have flouted the health protocol as early as the registration period in early September, with the Election Supervisory Body discovering 243 of such violations during this period alone. By mid-October, 67 candidates have contracted the virus while six others have died. Members of the General Elections Commission have also reportedly fallen ill from COVID-19. The risks remain prevalent as campaigning will last until 5 December.

Pushing on – “Resilience” or Other Motives?

In Malaysia, there is an interesting perception that Indonesians are resilient – they are unperturbed by any hardships they faced. Although the perception is unsubstantiated, the standpoint and attitude of lawmakers and politicians seem to reflect a degree of it.

The President’s office, for example, has stated that Pilkada cannot wait until the pandemic subsides and that the constitutional rights of voters must be protected. Ministers Mahfud Md and Tito Karnavian also reinforced this stance. The former warned of a power vacuum if another delay materializes and the latter believing that Pilkada would lead the public to vote for candidates who can manage the crisis. This is akin to the People Action Party’s (PAP) narrative in the lead up to Singapore’s 2020 General Election. The ruling party has requested “the support of every Singaporean, not just to return the PAP to the government, but also give it a strong mandate, to empower it to act decisively on your behalf, and steer the country towards better days ahead.” Furthermore, PDIP and Gerindra representatives had stated that Pilkada should go ahead as the end of the pandemic is uncertain and delaying it further would risk political chaos.

Still, there could be less-altruistic motivations for not delaying Pilkada further. Expert Djohermansyah Djohan laid out five sources of pressures behind this keenness: the contesting incumbents, political parties, decision makers, the business sector and the people themselves. According to him, each of these would benefit, politically or financially, if Pilkada were to proceed. For instance, some have exploited the election momentum to obtain food and financial aids from contesting candidates.

Casting Ballot and Casting an Image

Indonesia’s handling of the situation may likely impact its image abroad. Firstly, it calls into question the commitment that the state has towards ensuring the wellbeing of the people. Despite the palpable risks to voters, election officials and the candidates, the priority to execute a political process seems to prevail. However, it must be noted that the decision makers cannot be fully faulted for not making any effort to manage the situation as Pilkada has indeed been delayed once. Numerous deliberations would have taken place to reach such a decision.

Regardless, the optics of this situation might not look positive as politics and political process are seemingly prioritized above a national crisis. This is evident as political events such as Pilkada are seemingly immune to the restrictions placed on economic, social and cultural events or activities during this health crisis. Preventing a positive optic is Indonesia’s mounting daily infection rates. This is indicative that Indonesia has yet to develop a successful strategy to mitigate COVID-19 infections in normal conditions, let alone during political processes such as Pilkada.

This could amplify angst and criticisms of the state’s capability and accountability if the people are unconvinced with the government’s effort. As seen recently, angst and criticisms in Indonesia can lead to large-scale protests. Additionally, at a time when the country is led by a development-oriented administration, it is not sending an appealing message to potential foreign investors, further casting doubts on the future of its economy and recovery plan.

Secondly, it reinforces the perception that the government’s approach to the pandemic is that of resignation. Indonesia’s COVID-19 strategy thus far has appeared to be sub-optimum, evidenced by unsound movement control regulations, half-hearted enforcements, conflicting messages from authorities and the general shortage of COVID-19 tests performed, among others.

The gestures and tones from the government also suggest that the state is relying on the provision of an effective vaccine that could mitigate the pandemic instead of instilling more stringent measures.

From an Indonesian perspective, this is understandable. At 1,919,443 square kilometres of land area and with over 270 million people, Indonesia requires immense financial and human resources to enforce regulations that could keep the entire country in check.

Nevertheless, the expectation by decision makers and officials that Indonesians would abide by health protocols is also misplaced. To paraphrase Tirto.ID, if health protocols were already flouted during the quasi-lockdown period, how can we ensure that such flouting will not be repeated during Pilkada?

Anxious Wait for Indonesia

This is why the period between now and voting day would be that of suspense, as candidates embark on their campaign trails and explore ways to campaign without breaking the health protocol (or be caught breaking it).

Unfortunately, the protocol has yet to be adhered to in this early stage of campaigning as seen by the gathering of large crowds such as in Jambi. Not only are physical campaigns hard to control, candidates themselves do not serve as positive examples to their constituents on adhering to the parameters of the protocol. Examples include the candidates’ improper wearing of masks and posing with voters without observing social distancing.

The latest survey results on Indonesians’ obedience to the health protocol do not seem encouraging. Despite some positive pointers (92% of respondents claim to wear masks), the survey may not be representative of the situation in campaign trails. The findings that only 75% and 73% of respondents wash hands and observe social distancing respectively also elevate this worry over physical campaigns.

Additionally, voting day would provide insights beyond the outcome of the contest – voter turnout, the readiness of voting stations to observe health protocol and the legitimacy of the results (especially in a low turnout scenario). Bear in mind that previous voting days were especially strenuous to conduct, with 894 voting officers passing away in the Presidential Election last year. Whether Pilkada-linked clusters would emerge or not would be dependent on Indonesia’s infection rates in the lead up to 9 December.

It seems that Pilkada as a political process will serve as a pressure test for the country’s professed new normal paradigm. Indonesia is a big country and a proud democracy, but the awkward situation that the pandemic has plunged it into only reminds us that its nation- and state-building processes are not yet complete.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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