Hopes for safe regional elections in December have met an early challenge and may turn the so-called fiesta of democracy into a national tragedy, if no drastic measures are in place. Only in the first 10 days of campaigning, which began Sept. 26, the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) has discovered 237 violations of COVID-19 health protocols in 59 regencies and cities.
The trend is alarming, given the tendency of candidates vying for regional head posts on Dec. 9 to choose face-to-face over virtual meetings as a medium to woo voters. Such a choice risks creating new clusters of virus transmission, which will exacerbate the current state of the pandemic battering the country both on the public health and economic fronts.
Candidates still have two more months to lure voters, which means the worst has yet to come, if there is no effective deterrence that will force the politicians to think twice before violating the health protocols.
Protocols were breached even before the electoral campaign period kicked off, as several candidates who had tested positive for COVID-19 or failed to produce a COVID-19-free certificate registered with their local General Elections Commission (KPU) in person. Other candidates were accompanied by large entourages en route to their local KPU office to register, flagrantly neglecting physical distancing rules.
A KPU regulation issued on Sept. 23 requires candidates to comply with the health protocols and forbids them from holding rallies and crowded events such as concerts during the campaign period. Face-to-face gatherings are limited to 50 attendants in a spacious room so as to make sure physical distancing can be implemented. Wearing a mask is mandatory at all events related to the campaign.
In response to the offenses, Bawaslu has reprimanded 70 candidates and dissolved 40 gatherings. But the punishments are too lenient and will not deter them from repeating the mistake or other candidates from following suit.
Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo has suggested that Bawaslu disqualify candidates who violate the COVID-19 protocols. But Bawaslu member Achmad Bagja said such a severe punishment lacked a legal basis. The Regional Elections Law threatens to disqualify candidates only if they are proven to have committed vote buying. Disqualification also awaits incumbent candidates who appoint or dismiss staff within the bureaucracy without the consent of the home minister six months before voting day.
A regulation in lieu of law that allows for disqualification of candidates who breach the COVID-19 protocols would be needed, according to Bagja. But President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is unlikely to listen to Bawaslu’s request unless the defiance of the protocols is proven to proliferate the contagion. Besides, his ministers have convinced him the simultaneous elections in 270 regions across the country will not significantly increase COVID-19 transmission.
Stricter rules will hardly keep the candidates from infringing on the protocols. There is no incentive for them to comply with the rules either. Only rescheduling the elections will stop the mess. Alternatively, only the government’s capability to flatten the curve of COVID-19 transmission will justify going ahead with the regional elections.