Indonesian General Election 2019: Unique events from the campaign trail

A photo collage of incumbent President Joko Widodo and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, from their respective Instagram accounts. Both of the presidential candidates used Instagram to show their mass support. 

On 17 April 2019, 193 million Indonesian citizens simultaneously cast their vote for new leaders at more than 800,000 polling stations spread across the archipelago. According to the Australian think-tank, Lowy Institute, this gives Indonesia the unique distinction of holding the largest single-day elections in a democratic country.

On 21 May 2019, the General Election Commission (KPU) announced that incumbent president Joko Widodo (otherwise known as Jokowi) had won another term. His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, has rejected these results and hurled accusations of systemic cheating at the KPU. In the wake of these dramatic election results, Global Voices delves deeper into some of the other unique events that occurred during this year’s election cycle.

White: The color of both candidates and an anti-voting protest 

No ink finger, was the icon of abstention this year. Image courtesy of Facebook page Saya Golput. Used with the permission of the owner.

In this election cycle, the color white took on new meaning for voters across the political spectrum. For Jokowi followers, a plain white shirt — which has come to typify Jokowi's style — was the uniform of choice for his supporters. According to some, the word ‘white’ is one of the most frequent words pronounced by Jokowi’s stronghold.

On the opposition's side, supporters of Prabowo Subianto from The Islamic Forum (FUI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), two fundamentalist Muslim groups, urged their sympathizers to also wear white clothing on Election day. Conservative Muslim men from these organizations often wear long white shirts, and the clothing has become synonymous with their group.

The color white can also be seen in the symbol of a white hand that represents ‘no ink’. In Indonesia, ink is applied to a voter's finger once they have cast their vote. This ink is very difficult to wash off and thus helps prevent double voting. The slogan behind this is, ‘Golput’, which is short for ‘golongan putih’ (white group).

In 2014, 30.14 percent of the total registered voters abstained from voting. During this election cycle, the Golput campaign was at the center of debate as different religious factions spoke out against abstention. Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), Indonesia's top Muslim clerical body, forbade abstention. In addition, notable Catholic priest Romo Franz Magnis wrote an impassioned opinion article denouncing abstentions.

However, Indonesian political and military researcher Made Supriatma said that abstention in the election is a political choice:

Berbeda dengan von Magnis yang mendakwanya sebagai immoral, saya justru melihat bahwa pilihan ini sangat bisa dipertanggungjawabkan secara moral. Von Magnis menyebut mereka yang mengambil sikap golput adalah orang yang bodoh, benalu (parasite), dan bermental tidak stabil. Namun benarkah golput adalah sebuah tindakan immoral? Pertama-tama, saya kira kita perlu meluruskan apa yang disebut sebagai golput. Ada banyak kerancuan pengertian tentang ini. Banyak orang memahami golput semata-mata sebagai tindakan tidak memilih (non-voting behavior). Kita perlu menggarisbawahi bahwa ini adalah sebuah tindakan. Bukan sikap. Karena hanya tindakan maka penyebab non-voting behavior ini bermacam-macam. Sebagian besar dilakukan bukan sebagai sebuah sikap, bukan sebagai statemen politik. Di atas saya sudah kemukakan bahwa banyak orang menjadi golput karena pertimbangan yang serius. Ini bukan sikap yang diambil membabi buta. Menurut saya, justru berpartisipasi membabi buta mendukung salah satu capres dan ikut merobek-robek hidup sosial di negeri ini adalah bentuk ketidakstabilan mental. Bukankah itu yang terjadi dengan pendukung fanatik kedua capres? 

In contrast to von Magnis who indicted this as immoral, I actually see that this option is morally accountable.

Von Magnis called those who decided to abstain fools, parasites, and mentally unstable.

But is it true that abstention is an immoral action? First of all, I think we need to straighten out what's meant by “golput”. There is a lot of confusion with this term. Many people comprehend abstention merely as abstaining (non-voting behavior). We need to underline that this is an action. Not an attitude. Because it is simply an action, then the cause of non-voting behavior is diverse. Mostly it is done not as an attitude, not as a political statement.

I've pointed out that a lot of people choose abstention out of serious consideration. This [action] is not taken blindly. In my opinion, blindly supporting one candidate and participate in shredding the social life in this country is a form of mental instability. Isn't that what has happened with the ardent supporters of both presidential candidates?

Deaths at the polling stations

One of the more astonishing incidents that happened during the 2019 election cycle, was the news that more than a thousand election workers fell ill and nearly 300 died due to fatigue-related causes

Our biggest condolences to Indonesian Democracy Heroes #IndonesiaElectionHeroes Thank you for your dedication and service for the establishment of Indonesian democracy #KPUserved

_ KPU RI (@KPU_ID) April 25, 2019


There is an ongoing debate about whether or not the cause of these deaths is a result of the immense mental pressure or the intense workload demanded of the polling station workers. 

President Joko Widodo wrote his condolences on his Facebook account:

Di luar sukses penyelenggaraan hajatan demokrasi ini, kita telah mendengar kabar duka mengenai meninggalnya sejumlah petugas KPPS dan juga aparat Kepolisian RI, karena kelelahan dan sebab lainnya.

Saya, atas nama pribadi, pemerintah, dan negara, menyampaikan duka cita dan belasungkawa yang mendalam kepada keluarga yang ditinggalkan. Para petugas KPPS dan polisi-polisi ini adalah pejuang demokrasi yang meninggal dalam tugasnya.

Semoga Allah SWT menerima semua amal kebaikan mereka, menjadi sebuah keberkahan bagi Indonesia, dan semoga keluarga yang ditinggalkan diberikan ketabahan.

Beyond the success of democracy celebration, we have heard a sad news about the death of a number of KPPS workers and police officers due to fatigue and other causes.

I, on behalf of myself, the government, and the state, express deep condolences to the families left behind. These KPPS workers and police officers are warriors of democracy who die in the line of duty.

May Allah accept all their good deeds, become a blessing for Indonesia, and hopefully the families left behind are given fortitude.

Will either candidate be able to overcome the serious issues plaguing Indonesia?

In general, the 2019 election cycle was a success for the oldest political parties. Barely seen in the voter's choices were the new Solidarity Indonesian Party (PSI) which targets the millennial generation, the Berkarya Party chaired by Tommy Suharto (son of former Indonesia president and strongman Suharto), and the Indonesian Unity Party (Perindo) founded by a tycoon close to Donald Trump.

This election season saw (and continues to see) a lot of campaign drama; however, what was lacking on the campaign trail were agendas from both candidates that addressed environmental problems, women’s and children's rights, bureaucracy reformation, the potential return of TNI's dual function, and other issues.

Without a clear agenda, the candidates and politicians involved in the public administration will struggle to overcome sectarian groups, corrupt bureaucrats, and impunity for human rights violations.

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