Year-end regional polls risk low turnout due to virus fears

thejakartapost.com Dipublikasikan 04.20, 29/05 • The Jakarta Post
Final countdown: Home Minister Tito Karnavian (left) and General Elections Commission (KPU) chairman Arief Budiman pose for pictures after submitting the Population Election Potential Data (DP4) for the 2020 simultaneous regional elections, at the KPU office in Jakarta on Jan. 23.
Final countdown: Home Minister Tito Karnavian (left) and General Elections Commission (KPU) chairman Arief Budiman pose for pictures after submitting the Population Election Potential Data (DP4) for the 2020 simultaneous regional elections, at the KPU office in Jakarta on Jan. 23.

As the government stands firm in its decision to push back the 2020 simultaneous regional elections until the end of the year, critics are worried about a lower voter turnout should the COVID-19 epidemic in the country show no signs of easing.

The regional polls are scheduled for Dec. 9 this year, as confirmed during a House of Representatives hearing session on Wednesday involving government officials and representatives from the General Elections Commission (KPU), the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) and the Election Organization Ethics Council (DKPP).

This year’s simultaneous balloting, which seeks to elect 270 regional leaders comprising nine governors, 224 regents and 37 mayors, was postponed from its initial schedule of Sept. 23 through a government regulation in lieu of the 2016 Regional Elections Law issued earlier this month.

But the decision to push back the date has raised concerns among observers who fear the COVID-19 outbreak might continue late into the year – and even beyond it.

The public would have to decide whether or not they want to head to the polls bearing the risk of being infected with the disease should the outbreak persist until December, said constitutional law expert Feri Amsari from Andalas University.

He predicted that a greater number of people would prefer to stay away from the polls, possibly limiting public participation.

“The epidemic might force voters not to use their constitutional right to vote during the elections,” Feri said during a virtual discussion on Thursday.

He insisted that the government should prioritize these rights over others, including the right to participate in politics, and consider postponing elections to allow voters to cast their ballots without the fear of transmission. Particularly during times of crisis, people are guaranteed the right to protect themselves, as stipulated in Article 28A of the 1945 Constitution.

Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) political researcher Arya Fernandes also said voters would be hesitant to go to polling stations if the government itself could not give assurances that there was an end in sight for the epidemic.

Low turnout rates this year would be a major disappointment, Arya said, given how participation in regional elections had successfully improved over the last two simultaneous elections.

The KPU recorded that participation rates for the 2017 simultaneous elections held in 101 regions had reached 70 percent, and grew to 73 percent a year later when regional elections were contested in 171 regions across the country.

But KPU chairman Arief Budiman has pegged his hopes on this year’s elections to draw a 77.5 percent turnout rate, confident that the commission’s plan to tighten health protocols at polling stations would be enough to lure voters to the polls.

The protocols, he said, would be laid out in a forthcoming KPU regulation currently being deliberated by the commission, which stipulates election mechanisms during a national emergency.

The regulation would require election officials to undergo COVID-19 rapid tests or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests before entering their designated polling station.

They would also be obliged to use protective gear including masks, gloves and face protectors, as well as provide hand sanitizer and disinfectant for voters at the ballot box.

The number of registered voters per polling station would also be reduced to comply with physical distancing measures.

These additional safeguards would add about Rp 536 billion (US$35.72 million) to the current regional elections budget of around Rp 10 trillion.

“Despite establishing health protocols for polling stations, we still hope the epidemic will dissipate by November, so that the public will be able to head to the polls without hesitation,” Arief said.

Despite calls to postpone the elections beyond this year, the government remains adamant that it should hold the polls sooner rather than later as they projected that the epidemic could continue beyond 2020.

Home Minister Tito Karnavian said there was no reason to postpone the elections any longer, with the government predicting that the epidemic might continue into 2021, given that vaccines may only be available to the public globally in 2022.

“If the situation [next year] is going to be similar to this year, then I don’t see any point in postponing the elections to 2021,” Tito said during the audience with the House.

"We think elections should take place this year, but conducted with extra health and safety measures.”

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