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Indonesian voter turnout sliding
Publication Date : 07-10-2013
With legislative elections in Indonesia just months away, political parties have been gearing up for the April contest. About 10,000 candidates are vying for seats in the national and regional legislatures.
Popular Jakarta governor Joko Widodo continues to mesmerise the public. Will he become a candidate for the presidency? He certainly poses a strong potential challenge to those who have announced their intention to enter the contest for the highest office next July.
But the excitement over the elections has obscured one important factor: the millions of voters who choose not to take part.
Over the years, this group of "non-voters" has grown into a force capable of denying winners a resounding victory. This happens when the number of votes garnered by the winner is smaller than the number of voters who choose not to vote.
The trend has become increasingly palpable, with the number of non-voters rising in every election since Indonesia's first experiment with democracy following the fall of Suharto in May 1998.
A recent study released by the Kompas newspaper revealed that voter turnout in the first free legislative elections in 1999 was 92.7 per cent. This declined to 84.07 per cent in 2004 and 70.06 per cent in 2009.
The figures for regional elections also show a similar slide, according to local media reports. For example, in the North Sumatra gubernatorial election in March, the turnout was 53.96 per cent compared with 59.13 per cent in 2008. Similarly, in the Central Java gubernatorial election in May, the rate fell to 48.5 per cent from 58.45 per cent in 2008. In the East Kalimantan gubernatorial election on Sept 10, the turnout rate was even lower at 44 per cent, a drop from 59 per cent in 2008.
Indonesia's General Election Commission (KPU), which manages elections, has raised concerns over the trend. KPU chairman Husni Kamil Manik warned that the decline would continue, with the legislative election turnout expected to fall from 70.06 per cent in 2009 to just 54 per cent in next year's elections.
Indonesia is supposedly becoming more democratic. So why are its people increasingly reluctant to exercise democracy's most fundamental right: the right to vote?
Many analysts and observers have dubbed this group of non-voters "golput" or "golongan putih" (the white group). This was a form of protest that first emerged in the 1970s during Suharto's New Order. In those days, elections were rigged to ensure the victory of Golkar, the ruling Golongan Karya party, against two other parties, the United Development Party and the Indonesian Democratic Party. Golput - a play of words on Golkar - refers to voters who marked the ballot papers in such a way as to render them invalid. Today, "golput"-minded citizens either deliberately invalidate their votes or choose not to turn up at polling stations on election day.
There are three possible explanations for the "golput" phenomenon.
The first is that those who fail to vote may actually be willing voters who were excluded from the electoral register due to administrative problems, either because they were in hospital or in prison. Others may have been working or studying far from home.
Yet others abstain from voting for ideological reasons. This includes the followers of hardline Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia who decline to vote as a matter of principle. They view democracy as a Western import and therefore alien to Islam.
Second, voters may be bored with having to cast their votes so frequently, particularly when elections for national, regional and presidential polls are held close together.
Analyst Sukardi Rinakit of the Soegeng Sarjadi Syndicate, a local think-tank, once said that the phenomenon can be explained if one were to see Indonesia as "a melodramatic society". He believes that Indonesians are easily moved, forget easily and are easily bored - "mudah kasihan, mudah lupa dan mudah bosan". In other words, Indonesians follow election campaigns excitedly but, when the time to vote arrives, they are already disengaged.
Third, voters may be so disappointed with politicians in general that they have lost confidence in them. All the major political parties have been tainted by corruption. Their legislators in the House of Representatives and regional legislatures are, therefore, not seen as working in the interests of the people. Hence, citizens do not want to be part of the process of electing tainted parties and politicians into Parliament.
With elections next year, the KPU is scrambling to prevent a low turnout. Husni has suggested a campaign to educate the public on the importance of participating in elections. Others in the election watchdog are toying with the idea of making voting compulsory through legislation.
Participation in elections through voting is an important part of democracy. It is said that higher voter participation provides legitimacy to those in power, thus reducing the possibility of political instability. A low voter turnout, on the other hand, decreases both the representativeness and the moral authority of a nation's leadership.
Boosting voter turnout in Indonesian elections is, therefore, crucial for the smooth functioning of democracy. But addressing the issue properly requires an in-depth study that draws on lessons learnt in other countries. Different levels of development, for example, may influence voter turnout. Hence making voting compulsory may not work in developing countries such as Indonesia.