Yohanes Sulaiman – Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy, insists on holding its biggest regional elections in December 2020 despite increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases.
The number of cases in Indonesia surpassed 300,000 last week with no signs of the spread slowing. Calls from health experts to delay the elections for fear the virus may be spread during voting have been ignored.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo remains committed to holding regional elections. His eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, and son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, are running in mayoral races in Solo, Central Java, and Medan, North Sumatra, respectively.
Jokowi has rejected demands from the two biggest Islamic mass organisations, the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, to delay the elections. Both organisations expressed concerns about the risk of the virus spreading while the elections take place.
This rejection, especially of the Nahdlatul Ulama, is significant. Jokowi's Vice-President Ma'aruf Amin belongs to this organisation, which is seen to have played a pivotal role in Jokowi's victory in the 2019 presidential election.
Known as a people's president, Jokowi now doesn't seem to care about public rejection. A public opinion poll shows 63% of people surveyed wanted the election to be postponed.
I argue that the government's decision not to delay the elections is mostly driven by economic reasons, though political factors also come into play.
In September, six months after the novel coronavirus entered Indonesia, Jokowi changed his administration's focus from improving the economy to saving people's lives.
However, Jokowi's decision on the elections shows the economy still takes priority for his administration.
An election is always seen as economically beneficial, as it injects a lot of money into the society, both legally for election logistics and illegally via vote-buying practices, especially when the economy is close to or even in recession.
While the government boosts infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy, unfortunately projects that rely on state-owned enterprises don't generate that much economic stimulus, at least in the short term.
Elections basically involve a quick injection of cash that will increase people's spending and stimulate the economy.
The second reason is the cost of the regional elections.
Due to COVID-19, the government has already spent more money than allocated earlier for, among other things, protective equipment to be used during elections. This has caused the election cost to balloon by almost 35%. The budget swelled to Rp 20.46 trillion (US$1.4 billion).
At this point, the government has disbursed most of the money budgeted for the election. By early September, 93.2% had been realised and most likely spent.
Should the election be postponed, the government would need to allocate more money. This would hurt an already stretched Indonesian budget due to COVID-19.
The longer COVID-19 hits, the more damage it will cause to the Jokowi administration's approval rating, and with it the ambitions of his allies and relatives to run government offices.
Even though Jokowi's current personal approval rating is a stratospheric 79%, the same survey shows 82% of the respondents believe national economic conditions are worsening.
Ensuring economic prosperity during their tenure is important for presidents in Indonesia. Former president Sukarno in the 1960s and his successor Suharto in 1998 are Indonesian leaders who lost their power and ultimately their positions partly due to the deterioration of economic conditions, leading to massive popular protests that undermined the legitimacy of their regimes.
Besides, many incumbents had been freely using the government's COVID-19 assistance for political purposes. A lot of candidates have been spending a lot of money lobbying for support from parties or local leaders who are critical for their victory.
There is always a risk that candidates will have to spend more money to secure their support during the uncertain times until the end of pandemic.
Flaws in the government's arguments
Jokowi's administration itself argued that postponing the elections would deny people their constitutional rights for an election and put the nation at risk of a power vacuum due to the lack of legitimate authorities in the region.
But none of those reasons can stand on its own. Postponing the election does not mean negating people's constitutional rights to vote as long as the election will be held after the outbreak is contained. There is nothing in the constitution preventing the postponement of the election for regional leaders.
It also won't cause any crisis of legitimacy as long as the government issues Government Regulation In Lieu of Law (Perppu). The government has done it once before to postpone the September election.
The government could also either choose an acting regional head or lengthen the term of the current heads to solve the legitimacy problem.
Another argument against delaying the election is the fact that other countries, notably the United States, do not postpone their elections.
This argument is also problematic.
South Korea, which is often quoted as an example of a country that did not postpone its election, got the pandemic under control during the election. Indonesia has not been able to do so.
While the United States could postpone its election, it could not postpone it indefinitely. The US Constitution expressly states that the four-year term of both its president and vice-president must end on January 20 at noon, making it impossible to postpone the election indefinitely.
Not to mention the fact that both the House of Representatives and the Senate must agree to the postponement of the election. With the current sharp polarisation of United States politics, it would be a Sisyphean task to reach this agreement.
In conclusion, while the Jokowi administration may have offered arguments for not postponing the regional elections, at the end of the day economic and political considerations hold sway.
[Yohanes Sulaiman is an associate lecturer, School of Government, Universitas Jendral Achmad Yani.]