Galih Gumelar and Ghina Ghaliya, Jakarta – Democracy and public health are under threat as the 2020 simultaneous regional elections in 270 regions across Indonesia may emerge as new sources of COVID-19 infections in the country, experts and lawmaker have warned.
The Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) has found that 243 prospective candidates ignored health protocols when they brought along large entourages to register their candidacies with the local offices of the General Elections Commission (KPU) from Sept. 4 to Sept. 6.
These prospective candidates and their supporters violated a KPU regulation that prohibits mass-gatherings during all stages of the elections, from the preparations starting from June 15 to the final vote count a week after the Dec. 9 polling day. The regulation says the KPU can only issue a warning to the candidates and campaign teams.
Epidemiologist Tri Yunis Miko Wahyono said such a lack of discipline in social distancing during elections would definitely increase the risk of COVID-19 transmissions in the country, attributing it to the failure of the KPU to impose stricter sanctions on offenders.
He warned that the transmissions would further escalate if people kept neglecting protocols in the coming campaign season, which will run from Sep. 26 to Dec. 5.
"Therefore, the sanctions must be firm. If they repeatedly violate the rules, the KPU should drop their candidacy," Tri said on Tuesday.
Netty Prasetiyani of House of Representatives' Commission IX overseeing health said stricter sanctions were key to preventing transmissions during elections and that all candidates should educate their supporters better about COVID-19 prevention.
"The KPU announcement [of eligible candidates on Sept. 23] and campaign events should be carried out virtually. Prospective leaders must prioritize their people's health," she said.
The government and the House insisted in late May on holding the elections on Dec. 9 despite the health risks. The KPU has since found itself under pressure to draft special health measures.
Experts and activists have repeatedly urged authorities to postpone the elections, as the COVID-19 outbreak in the country could continue late into the year, but so far to no avail.
They say the elections, to choose 270 regional leaders comprising nine governors, 224 regents and 37 mayors, will put voters and election organizers at risk of contracting the disease. They have also expressed concern about low voter turnout should the outbreak in the country show no signs of abating, thus discouraging people from showing up at polling stations and eventually undermining democracy.
Now, with three months to go to polling day, the KPU has found that 46 out of 734 prospective candidates have tested positive for COVID-19. Several hopefuls have died of the disease even before placing their bids.
KPU commissioner Hasyim Asy'ari told The Jakarta Post the commission would continue verifying the 46 names online rather than in person.
If they pass the verification, they are still eligible to run in the elections despite having the disease. However, they will not be allowed to hold campaigns as they will be required to focus on their recovery, according to the KPU.
Political parties endorsing candidates who have died of COVID-19 after registering with the KPU can replace them with new names by providing death certificates of the former candidates, Hasyim said.
A Democratic Party-backed regent candidate in Karo regency, North Sumatra, Kena Ukur Karo Jambi Surbakti, 74, died from COVID-19 on the last day of registration for regional elections on Sunday. The party later replaced him with his daughter after the supporting parties, the Golkar Party and the National Mandate Party, agreed to the substitution.
But Fadli Ramadhanil of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) recommended that the government, the KPU and the House postpone the remaining election stages, including the campaign period.
"In a critical situation like this, they should consider whether these election stages should continue or not," he said.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was quick to comment on the issue, saying that the elections could not be postponed because the government could not predict when the outbreak would end.
Jokowi, whose eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka and son-in-law Bobby Afif Nasution are running in the Surakarta, Central Java, and Medan, North Sumatra, mayoral races, respectively, doubled down on his message for election organizers to enforce strict health protocols in the lead-up to and on voting day.
"The safety and health of the public is everything, so enforcing health protocols is non-negotiable," Jokowi said.
KPU head Arief Budiman said the commission was set to apply stricter health protocols for the coming campaign period, the conditions of which have been laid out in the prevailing regulation.
The commission will allow only 100 participants during face-to-face campaign rallies, which will be limited to one session for each mayoral and regency candidate and two sessions for each gubernatorial candidate.
Above all, the commission is urging candidates to refrain from hosting campaign rallies in person and instead turn to online platforms.
Bawaslu head Abhan said the agency was now considering reporting those candidates in the future who neglect health protocols to the police. "We are exploring numerous possibilities. One option is to use criminal offenses under the Criminal Code or the Health Quarantine Law."