Galih Gumelar, Jakarta – As if preparing to host elections across Indonesia's vast archipelago during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn't hard enough, the General Elections Commission (KPU) has gone the extra mile to ensure voters turn up and stay safe.
The KPU has been continuously hosting simulations for the 2020 regional elections set to commence simultaneously on Dec. 9, commissioner Evi Novida Ginting Malik said recently, with the government showing no signs of bowing to pressure to postpone the polls over pandemic concerns.
The commission is required to conduct thorough simulations given the magnitude of this year's elections, through which some 100.9 million voters – more than a third of the 274 million-strong population – will elect nine governors, 224 regents and 37 mayors in 270 regions.
With less than two months left until balloting, Evi said the KPU had so far conducted five simulations in various polling station locations across the country, with the latest being held in Magelang, Central Java on Oct. 10.
"They have been helpful for us in rehearsing the elections so that [we] won't put voters and election organizers at risk of contracting the disease," Evi said in a webinar last week.
More rehearsals to follow
During such simulations, the commission rehearses a string of voting procedures that voters must undergo on balloting day, which begins upon entry at their designated polling station until they leave the premises.
The point of the dry runs is to assess whether the KPU is capable of implementing stringent health protocols at all stages of polling, as set out in KPU Regulation No. 13/2020 on health protocols.
The regulation stipulates that voters and members of the polling station working committees are required to wear a mask and have a maximum temperature of 37.3 degrees Celsius to enter the polling station. They are also required to refrain from making physical contact and practice strict physical distancing measures.
The KPU plans to hold rehearsals every week leading up to balloting day, since previous simulations have proven insufficient in assessing its preparedness.
However, Evi explained that the commission had several takeaways from the rehearsals that would be put to practice on voting day.
For instance, the KPU learned it was necessary to prepare a stockpile of face masks at each of the 298,852 polling stations as some people may still show up without them.
Voters, Evi added, might make polling stations crowded as they usually gather at certain times of the day. Voting begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. on balloting day. To counter this, each voter would be prescribed a specific time of day to cast their ballot.
With such provisions in place, Evi said she hoped to gain public trust, which in turn would better ensure a higher turnout. "We'll try our best to prove we'll prioritize health, so that voters won't hesitate to go to the polls," she said.Pushback still palpable
Since May, experts and civil groups have criticized the state for pushing ahead with the year-end polls amid the pandemic, since it could put many lives in danger. As a result, they have called for the elections to be postponed.
These concerns were further amplified after the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) found that 243 prospective candidates had ignored health protocols by taking large entourages in tow when registering their candidacies at the regional KPU offices between Sept. 4 and 6.
The agency also reported an undisclosed number of candidates in 59 cities and regencies have allegedly committed 237 health protocol violations in the first 10 days of the campaigning period, which began on Sept. 26 and will run until Dec. 5.
But both the state apparatus and political parties have insisted on setting up extra precautions to ensure that health protocols are strictly followed, even though the number of COVID-19 infections continues to climb and several KPU officials have tested positive for the disease.
Law of averages
Experts have said that insisting on holding the elections would result in voters becoming reluctant to go – the KPU has targeted a 77.5 percent turnout this year.
Adhy Aman of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) said that ensuring the safety of election organizers and voters was key to achieving high participation rates, based on the election results of around 40 countries and territories that had held elections during the pandemic.
Citing collated data from other countries, Adhy said there was an average decline of 10 percent in the participation rates of those 40 places. However, a handful of nations including South Korea, Poland and Sri Lanka have managed to increase their turnout rates using remote voting methods or waiting until viral transmission declined.
But Hadar Nafis Gumay of the Network for Democracy and Electoral Integrity (Netgrit) said voters could still be hesitant to go when they realize the scale of health protocol violations still occurring in the registration and campaign periods.
"Those violations have failed to convince voters that the upcoming elections will be safe enough for them. For that reason, it is best for the government to postpone," he said.