Marchio Irfan Gorbiano and Ardila Syakriah, Jakarta – The government is facing mounting pressure to postpone the regional elections this December amid concerns about greater COVID-19 transmission across the country, as officials prepare even stricter curbs.
Indonesia saw another daily high for new COVID-19 infections on Monday, with the 4,176 new cases recorded adding urgency to calls to postpone the elections to prevent the virus from spreading further among the population.
The two largest grassroots Islamic organizations in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, are among the latest civil society groups to call for a delay to the simultaneous elections, in order to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.
The two groups expressed concerns that the election process, particularly campaigning, would inevitably involve a large number of people and would therefore pose a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission around the country.
"At every stage of organizing the election, even with stricter health protocols, it is difficult to prevent concentrations of people in large numbers," said NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj and secretary general Helmy Faishal Zaini in a statement.
They also asked the government to divert funds allocated for the elections to be used instead to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Muhammadiyah, meanwhile, urged the General Elections Commission (KPU) to hold talks with the Home Ministry and the House of Representatives to review their decision to hold the December elections.
"The KPU will do well to carefully deliberate whether to delay the 2020 elections until it's possible [to hold the poll]. The safety of the people takes precedence compared with organizing the elections, which could potentially act as [a means of] COVID-19 transmission," Muhammadiyah chairman Haedar Nashir and secretary general Abdul Mu'ti said in a statement.
The postponement of an election during a health crisis, which is regarded as a non-natural disaster, is justifiable, according to the Regional Elections Law, if the government, the KPU and the House agree to do so.
At the moment, all three sides still insist on going through with the December polls.
In addition to NU and Muhammadiyah, former vice president Jusuf Kalla has also called for a postponement of the elections, pointing out that at least 71 countries have already taken similar actions.
In an op-ed published by Kompas daily on Monday, Kalla said that countries like Australia, France and Iran, which eventually allowed their citizens to cast their ballots, had invariably recorded low voter turnout.
"The best way, in the interest of the people, is to postpone the regional elections until next year after vaccines have been discovered and proven effective in containing the spread of COVID-19. We could hold [the regional elections] in 2021," Kalla wrote.
The government has already once postponed the regional elections, but is intent on holding them on Dec. 9, during which 270 regional leadership posts will be contested, comprising nine governorships, 224 regencies and 37 mayorships.
Officials have argued that the electoral process could be used as an opportunity to spur administrations into acting on the COVID-19 outbreak in their respective regions.
"This is the moment, if we can set it right, to encourage the regional administrations to seriously tackle COVID-19," said Home Minister Tito Karnavian in a virtual discussion on Sunday. "The next regional elections, if the regulation is not amended, will be in 2024, which means that they [regional leaders] will have less than four years [in office]. If [the pandemic] still lasts into 2021 and 2022, they will eventually face the same issues [as at present]."
The wider public, on the other hand, appears to be in support of a postponement.
A July survey held by Jakarta-based pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia found that 63.1 percent of respondents preferred to have the elections postponed. A similar poll by Charta Politika revealed that 54.2 percent of the respondents disagreed with the decision to hold the December elections.
Riris Andono Ahmad, an epidemiologist at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, one of the regions holding an election this year, recommended that simultaneous elections be postponed until the government could take control of the outbreak. Otherwise, the number of COVID-19 cases would only soar higher, putting the healthcare system at risk of collapse.
Expecting candidates and voters to follow health protocols to reduce transmission risks was almost impossible as had been observed so far, he said, especially after the relaxation of restrictions saw people's mobility increase and cases spike.
"When there are crowds, transmission risks will increase. It's not only about the number of people there; there are also ventilation, duration and distance factors that need to be taken into account," Riris said.
The latest KPU regulation allows candidates to host physical campaign events that could attract crowds, including general meetings, concerts, art performances, festivals, competitions, bazaars, blood donation drives and commemorations of party anniversaries, all with no more than 100 attendees and by following health protocols. Specifically, for general meetings, they must be held outdoors and commence from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the latest.
Of the total 309 regencies and cities holding elections, including 39 regencies and cities in nine provinces where voters will elect governors, 45 are in red zones at high risk of COVID-19 infection, according to government data on Sept. 10. Among them are Medan, North Sumatra, where President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's son-in-law Bobby Nasution is running for mayor.
Meanwhile, three KPU commissioners have contracted COVID-19, and the KPU discovered earlier that 46 prospective candidates across the country had tested positive for the illness.
Furthermore, a total of 243 prospective candidates were found to have violated health protocols earlier this month.
The election watchdog the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), which has consistently called for postponement over concerns about public health since March, has urged the government to heed the calls by NU and Muhammadiyah.
"The government's insistence on holding elections in December despite opposition from the vast majority of the public will only result in people becoming politically apathetic. It will discourage people from voting," Perludem executive director Titi Anggraini said.
Tito said the government was now considering issuing either a regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) specifically regulating sanctions against those who violate health protocols during regional elections or an all-inclusive Perppu covering everyday public compliance with health protocols.
But Titi said: "The blueprint of regional elections was based on the situation before the pandemic, therefore, any adjustment to sanctions for health-protocol violations will not deter cavalier behavior."
"The only adjustment we need is for the government, the House and the KPU to postpone the elections until the pandemic shows signs of abating, or at least until mid-2021," she said.
She suggested the government issue a Perppu to push back the elections.