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Indonesian election: Why many West Papuans will vote differently to the rest of the country

ABC News - April 14, 2019

Tasha Wibawa – In Indonesia's upcoming presidential elections this week, thousands of West Papuans will be voting differently from the rest of the nation, despite the province being claimed as part of the country for more than half a century.

On April 17, up to 193 million eligible voters across the country will cast their ballots for Indonesia's president, vice-president and members of the legislative assembly.

It will be the world's biggest single day of democratic elections, but the right to vote democratically is not broadly applied across the nation. Instead, people in Papua and West Papua vote using a communal method known as the "noken" system.

The provinces of Papua and West Papua have been the site of a decades-long conflict between Indonesian forces and those calling for independence, and are often referred to collectively as West Papua overseas.

What is the noken system?

The noken voting system is a traditional communal method of voting. The word noken refers to traditional Papuan bags made out of woven tree roots.

The same bags are often used to collect the votes, but there are conflicting claims as to when the method started being used.

The noken system works in two different ways: the "Bigman" vote – where the head of a tribe votes on behalf of its members – or by using the noken bags as a replacement for modern polling stations, to gather ballots in full view of the public.

Neither method has any element of privacy, and both have been criticised by analysts and politicians for being open to corruption, manipulation and undermining democracy.

The system is currently being used in 12 out of 29 regencies across Papua province, mostly in mountainous regions.

Cahyo Pamungkas, an analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Science, explained that a leader of an ethnic group or a village would conduct a public consultation to decide on who – or which party – would receive their vote before the national election.

"There is no individual freedom for the decision... it must be a community decision," he said.

How does it work in Indonesia's democratic system?

Indonesia's Constitutional Court in 2009 allowed a concession for the system on the basis of West Papua's traditional culture, making it legitimate in the context of the country's democracy.

But Jenny Munro, a cultural anthropologist focusing on West Papua at the University of Queensland, told the ABC that Papua's special privileges in Indonesia were out of the ordinary.

"Indonesia does not normally support local political systems or governance approaches that diverge from the national 'normal'," she said.

She added that not enough in-depth research had been done to answer the question of why the Indonesian Government continued to support the noken system.

Last year, Indonesia's General Elections Commission (KPU) voiced concern that the system would pressure voters to change their votes, and vowed to reduce its use, according to local media.

The system has been criticised as "abusive, undemocratic [and] promoting intimidation", Dr Munro said.

But she said practices such as intimidation and corruption did not only occur in areas using the noken system, but were widespread throughout the country.

What do Papuans think about the system?

Views about the system are polarising, even within the local West Papua community. But accurate views are hard to gather, due to foreign media restrictions imposed by the Indonesian Government.

"Some Papuan highlanders I know feel that they are stronger together, in collectives – big or small – because they feel overwhelmed by non-Papuans and [feel] unsafe," Dr Munro said.

She added that the voting system had also become a "symbol of local power and cultural values".

A common criticism from people in Papua is that the system has instead empowered tribal leaders.

"The noken system always crops up and dominates the news at election time – crowding out other important topics like the ongoing violence and displacement [of people in the province]," Dr Munro said.

Instead, it has highlighted "the stereotypical story that the Papuan highlands are 'primitive', out of date, out of touch, uneducated", she said.

West Papuan activist Benny Wenda told the ABC he outright rejected the Indonesian elections, regardless of which system was used. "These elections are not for West Papuans but for Indonesia," he said.

Mr Wenda said West Papuans should boycott voting because of Indonesia's "occupation" of the region, referring to the 1969 Act of Free Choice vote, which has been widely criticised as a sham.

"Whether noken system or not, it will make no difference to the suffering of my people," he said.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-14/why-do-people-in-parts-of-indonesia-west-papua-vote-differently/10981084