The Jakarta Post
The electoral process, functioning of government and political participation are the key measurements of democracy which can easily be observed through elections. Indeed, elections demonstrate the maturity of a country's democracy, therefore the question of whether we should support the government's push for regional elections amid the pandemic is tricky.
The latest data show that about 100 million voters are eligible to elect regional heads in 270 cities, regencies and provinces on Dec. 9.
The fiesta of democracy will come on the heels of a recession. The country's gross domestic product contracted for the second quarter in a row at -3.49 percent in Q3.
In a time of economic turbulence, the elections will be held based upon completely opposite reasons: sustainability of public governance or fulfilling the interest of those with political power.
To ensure the success of the simultaneous elections, the government has raised the budget for the event by about Rp 5.2 trillion (US$370 million) for implementation of health protocols during the elections. Such an amount of money is enough to build health facilities to treat COVID-19 patients or for a public campaign on COVID-19 prevention.
Democracy is expensive, but should it cost citizens' lives, especially during a pandemic?
Experts and policy observers have critically assessed the plausible loopholes in the government’s decision to let the show go on. First, the government has not yet considered mechanisms to hold elections based on the regions’ COVID-19 risk level. Second, the regulations related to local elections do not stipulate sanctions for non-compliance with the health protocols. Third, the fear of a power vacuum if the elections are delayed is groundless because acting regional heads can be appointed.
If the elections are non-negotiable, the question about the safety of the voters arises.
To minimize the potential spread of the virus during the voting, the government has drafted a regulation. It includes new health measures, such as limiting the number of voters in each polling station to a maximum of 500, hourly regulated voters’ attendance and a predetermined schedule to vote.
Moreover, all polling stations will conduct extra sanitary procedures and body temperature checks, implement a mandatory mask-wearing policy and require all poll workers to prove they test negative for the virus. The government will also deploy the police and military to make sure the health protocols are implemented.
Despite those precautionary measures, questions still linger as to whether the elections will not worsen COVID-19 transmission, given the fact that some regions that will host elections are listed as high-risk. Some countries that held in-person voting did show a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases right after the election, including Belarus, Poland and Serbia.
More than 50 countries and territories, including Austria, France and Burundi, have canceled or postponed national and subnational elections due to the pandemic.
Other countries decided to proceed with their elections with some conditions: 1) people are at low risk because the COVID-19 transmission curve is flattening; 2) mechanisms of voting other than in-person balloting are in place such as digital voting or via post; or 3) a combination of the two as happened in Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
With the pandemic still difficult to control, Indonesia should learn from countries that successfully held elections without compromising voters’ lives.
First is categorizing the regions based on their risk of contagion. The low risk regions can proceed with in-person voting with strict health protocols in place, while in high and medium risk zones the government should consider e-voting or voting by mail. E-voting was tried already even before the pandemic, and the country’s postal service can reach almost all parts of the country. The United States is the latest country to adopt voting by mail.
Suppose the equipment and mechanism is perfect for the regional elections to run safely. However, voters are rational and chances are they will not turn up to polling stations to exercise their right. Low voter turnout is therefore a clear challenge for the upcoming regional elections
High voter turnout is often correlated with a thriving democracy, especially because the government must ensure people’s rights are protected, including to participate in the electoral process safely, even during a pandemic.
In 1968, Riker through his work “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting" highlighted the connection between the benefits and cost of voting from voters' points of view. When the cost of voting is higher than the benefits that voters will get or predict from voting for their chosen candidates, the lower the likelihood that voters will participate in the electoral process.
Considering the importance of maintaining or increasing voter turnout, non-in-person voting mechanisms for high and medium risk zones are the best alternative that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the General Elections Commission, and the House of Representatives must weigh.
In case the infrastructure and resources are insufficient to conduct in-person voting, e-voting and voting by mail, the government must ensure both poll organizers and voters comply with health protocols.
When all the measures are not viable, then we should reconsider holding the regional elections for the safety of more than 100 million lives.
-- Both writers are Master of Public Policy candidates at London School of Economics and Political Science