Margareth S. Aritonang, Jakarta – Postponing this year's regional elections was the most viable option to avoid COVID-19 from further spreading to rural areas, Indonesia's elections authority has said, as reports emerged that election organizers have also caught the disease and stakeholders moved to delay the polls.
The General Elections Commission (KPU) made the decision after revealing it was also fighting to contain the virus within its ranks, which poses a serious risk to the agency's capacity to organize elections in 270 regions slated for September.
KPU Commissioner Hasyim Asy'ari told The Jakarta Post that members of the institution both at the national and regional levels had been exposed to COVID-19, with some testing positive for the disease and others being treated as suspected patients or placed under surveillance.
Based on agency reports, the list of infected election organizers includes, among others, members of the South Solok KPU branch in West Sumatra and representatives in East Kalimantan's Kutai Kartanegara and Bontang regencies.
But KPU members in other regions are now also at risk of exposure to the virus, especially those who participated in a training event held by the agency's central office in Jakarta on Feb. 8-12.
"We found that our colleagues who contracted the virus are KPU members and information system operators who took part in a technical training course on the verification of voter data," Hasyim said on Sunday.
He said the KPU would need time not only to trace the spread of the disease to personnel all over the country but also to wait for infected members to fully recover so as to avoid transmission to even more people. "Our capacity and preparedness have definitely been affected," he said.
On Monday, Home Minister Tito Karnavian quietly held a meeting with the KPU, election watchdog Bawaslu and House of Representatives lawmakers to discuss the fate of the elections, which were thrown into doubt since the COVID-19 outbreak began sweeping across the nation.
They agreed to postpone regional elections and urged regional leaders to reallocate funds previously earmarked for election preparations to COVID-19 containment efforts, according to a signed letter summarizing the decisions that was circulated Monday.
It remains unclear for how long the regional elections will be postponed, but the letter states that any continuation of the electoral process would have to be agreed upon by the KPU, the government and the House.
KPU chief Arief Budiman had floated the possibility of postponing the polls either for three months or an entire year, noting a preference for the latter. "But even that has its consequences," Arif told a virtual press conference on Sunday.
The 2016 Regional Elections Law stipulates that regional elections must take place in September this year, so any delay would require a revision to the law.
Some longtime observers see a revision to the law as unlikely because it might involve a long political process between the government and the House. This can, however, be worked around by having the President issue a government regulation in lieu of law (Perppu).
Experts have previously called on President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to support the idea of issuing a Perppu in order to ensure quality regional elections can take place.
An expert staff member at the Office of the Presidential Chief of Staff, Sigit Pamungkas, said that the government was open to the idea of issuing a Perppu to reschedule the September polls but only under two conditions.
First, a Perppu would become viable if the KPU no longer has enough time to prepare for the elections after May 29, the deadline of the state of emergency declared by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) in response to the virus outbreak. Secondly, rescheduling is possible if the current situation gets worse.
The KPU previously insisted on keeping the September schedule on the table, prior to the discovery that its members had contracted the disease. The option became unviable following the death of a KPU commissioner at the Minahasa branch in South Sulawesi who had already been put under surveillance (ODP).
South Sulawesi is one of the nine provinces that are scheduled to hold gubernatorial elections this year. The other eight are Bengkulu, Jambi, West Sumatra, Riau Islands, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan, North Kalimantan and Central Sulawesi. All have confirmed COVID-19-positive cases.
In addition to the nine gubernatorial elections, the September polls would have seen candidates jostle for mayorships in 37 cities nationwide. As of Monday, 22 of these cities have confirmed COVID-19 transmission, including Depok in West Java, Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, Medan in North Sumatra, Makassar in South Sulawesi, South Tangerang in Banten, Surakarta in Central Java and Surabaya in East Java.
As many as 224 regencies are also heading for elections, with 32 already reporting infections. Kutai Kartanegara is among them, as well as Bandung in West Java and Merauke in Papua.
As of Monday afternoon, Indonesia has recorded a total of 1,414 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 122 fatalities.