'Golput', what's the worry?

As the national election gets closer, and due to the low turnout in several regional elections, politicians and political observers are increasingly concerned with the increasing prevalence of golput (non-voters). These concerns are for good reason.

First, golput can mean that the people do not like the choices available to them in the election, and that is why they choose not to participate. They perceive the incumbents, opposition and newcomers as unqualified. The incumbents failed to perform when they were given a chance, the opposition does not have the capability to perform better than the incumbents, and nor do the newcomers.

Second, golput can mean that people are disappointed with the failure of free and fair elections to improve their lives. For this reason, they do not see that the benefit of voting can outweigh the cost of coming to vote. They see voting as a waste of time and resources.

Third, if the rate of golput is high, it can mean that the government resulting from the election will lack legitimacy to govern. Since many of voters did not participate in the election, the elected government does not represent the aspirations of the people.

But should we really be concerned with the possibility of high rate of golput in the 2009 election? Yes, for the above reasons, and no for two reasons. First, compared to other democracies, voter turnout in Indonesia's national elections have been relatively high, and will tend to stay high because of the existing party and electoral institutions in the country.

Indonesia can be considered more as a proportional representation than a plurality system. Proportional representation tends to have higher turnout than a plurality system because in proportional representation, voters from smaller parties can still make their votes count.

In terms of voters per Member of Parliament, Indonesia, relative to other democracies, has generally fewer voters per MP. And the fewer the voters per MP, the more people's votes count. With these institutional characteristics, Indonesia should be able to maintain significant voter turnout in its national elections, especially during the presidential election considering Indonesia is a presidential system.

The second reason, more importantly, on why we should not be too concerned with golput is because golput has positive meanings and implications. Before I continue, I should underline that I am not encouraging people to become golput, instead, I am suggesting that golput might have a positive meaning and implications behind all the criticism. Discouraging it might be as unhealthy as encouraging it.

In the case of Indonesia, golput shows a positive development for the newly installed democracy. In Indonesia, voting is a right and people can choose to vote or not to vote. Not to vote is not an act that is outside the corridors of a democratic system, but instead one of the available choices in a democracy. Thus, despite not voting, the people still act within the rules of the game of democracy.

Not to vote can show several other things. If voters decide not to vote because they are dissatisfied with the available choices, this shows that voters have become more critical towards the choices provided to them. They do not choose without calculation. They assess the available candidates, and they make a judgment about the quality of the candidates.

If people do not vote because they no longer see the ability of free and fair elections to improve their livelihood, golput should be a motivation for Indonesian democrats to improve the system, and improve the government's performance.

A high rate of golput can diminish the legitimacy of the elected government. However, this can be among the key incentives for future political elites to improve their performance. Failure to do so will decrease their legitimacy even further.

To conclude, despite showing dissatisfaction toward the political elites, and democratic performance, golput is a good indicator that the voters in Indonesia have become more critical, and golput can be a healthy incentive for leaders to improve the democratic system and for the government to improve its performance.

The writer is a researcher in the Politics and Social Change Department at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta, and is a PhD candidate at Northern Illinois University.

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