Tanjungpinang, Riau Islands (ANTARA) - Elections have been an intrinsic part of Indonesia's political system since the first election for the parliamentary and constitutional assembly members in 1955 until the latest presidential, parliamentary, and regional parliament elections in 2019.

In total, Indonesians had borne witness to 12 parliamentary elections being held, though only four presidential elections since 2004 after a constitutional amendment allowed direct elections for the executives, as earlier, every Indonesian president was selected by members of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR RI).

Elections are an essential part of national politics, as it is the people’s medium to vet the best candidates for the job or give another opportunity to incumbents. Continuous improvement of electoral conduct is important to ensure free and fair elections that provide political legitimacy to the elected leaders.

As a means to improve the election conduct, the government decided to implement simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 – a stark difference from earlier elections that left a gap of several months between the parliamentary and presidential elections.

The 2019 general elections compacted presidential and national, provincial, and district/city legislatures into one day, resulting in the most complex election conduct in the nation’s history.

With 16 national political parties participating in the 2019 elections, nine political parties succeeded to surpass the four-percent parliamentary threshold, while seven parties, mostly newcomers, failed to gain seats. A notable failure was of the Hanura Party that lost its parliamentary representation in 2019 despite winning seats in the 2014 legislative elections.

The presidential election saw a repeat match between the incumbent, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), and challenger Prabowo Subianto. Voters decided to allow President Jokowi to continue his work for a second term by bagging 55.50 percent of the popular votes, defeating Subianto, who managed to gain only 44.50 percent of the votes.

Addressing election issues

The 2019 general elections brought to the fore several issues that should be addressed before the next general elections scheduled in less than two years. Election officers’ workload and health issues, electoral campaign quality, the polarization of society, and the influence of social media are several examples of issues currently faced by the electoral authority.

"Those are the issues we had experienced during the 2019 elections apart from recurring voters' data issues from the earlier elections,” political science expert from the Raja Ali Haji Maritime University Bismar Arianto stated.

As the elections for five offices got compacted into a single day, election officers' workload increased by fourfold, as they were required to count ballot papers of the presidential and the national and regional legislature elections simultaneously. The increasing workload caused the deaths of 550 and the hospitalization of 3,500 officers during the 2019 elections, as fatigued officers, with chronic conditions, suddenly found their disease to have relapsed.

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Fellow political observer Dewi Haryanti opined that the harmful effects on the election officers’ health were likely to be repeated in the 2024 general elections if no remedial actions were taken.

To address the issue, she urged electoral authorities to conceive proper technical guidelines to delineate officers’ responsibilities, as they are required to perform several tasks during the election day. Mistakes committed during the election conduct may cause a repeat election or results reporting delay, further exacerbating the burnout potential among officers.

Despite increasing health risks posed to election officers, they admitted to the simultaneous elections being more feasible for the national budget and logistics, as multiple elections are compacted into one day, thereby simplifying the preparation process and the election conduct.

Arianto noted that the Indonesian society remained polarized between their choice of candidates during the 2019 presidential election -- Jokowi and Subianto -- long after the election concluded.

Social media narratives perpetuated the polarization as counter-productive, while factless debates and hoaxes were circulated by influential figures from each camp that called each other derogatory names of cebong (Indonesian for tadpole, denoting supporters of Joko Widodo) and kampret (abbreviation of the Indonesian name for Subianto’s coalition, a pun for the Indonesian word for microbat).

Harmful political debates must be halted and healthy political narratives should involve public debate on the candidates’ mission, program, and track records, thereby allowing potential voters and supporters to know more about their preferred candidates.

Arousing equal public attention

Apart from the officers’ health and polarization issues, Arianto also observed that during the simultaneous elections, legislature candidates were often eclipsed by presidential candidates engaged in more rousing campaigns.

Small numbers of presidential candidates and vast numbers of legislative candidates may have discouraged potential voters to engage with legislative candidates, as they were overwhelmed by hundreds of candidates offered by the competing parties.

Voters’ attention might be more focused on the charismatic executive candidates that would oversee daily activities and potentially attract greater media coverage than legislative candidates that would only work behind the desk to draft and supervise the executives upon their election.

The situation is exacerbated by the legislative candidates' lack of action to campaigning, thereby resulting in low public knowledge on candidates and the attention to the legislative election despite equal importance given to both elections. Moreover, the General Elections Commission only accommodated debates for executive candidates, leaving the legislative candidates with no medium to promote their ideas through a debate.

The election of regional executives that are also scheduled in 2024 posed the next dilemma for the election system, as the authorities understood the complexity of preparing the complicated 2019 general elections.

If proper preparations were not made for the 2024 elections, issues pertaining to the election officers' health, public attention, and logistics preparations that were overwhelming many parties during the earlier elections could further aggravate. Hence, it is justifiable to divide the national and regional elections in different years to spare more time for the preparation process.

However, if regional elections are delayed until 2025, a vacuum in the regional governments might ensue, as their term ended with no elections followed. Regional executives must also be replaced by acting leaders pending the election, bringing uncertainty to the regional governance.

A prerequisite of a democratic country is free and fair election for producing leaders with no questionable legitimacy. Despite various issues surrounding the election conduct, continuous improvement should be conducted to ensure voters' rights to voice their support on the ballot paper remain unharmed. The more complex the election, the more comprehensive its preparation must be conducted.

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Translator: Nikolas Panama, Nabil Ihsan
Editor: Sri Haryati
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