April 2, 2014 9:14 am

Indonesia wrestles with election logistics

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Fears about vote buying and poll manipulation are widespread as Indonesia prepares to hold one of the world’s most complicated elections at a crucial juncture for the third-biggest democracy after India and the US.

But Ronny Irawan, a local election official, is more concerned about the weather forecast.

More than 40 per cent of the 1,130 polling stations in his district of Ketapang, on the island of Kalimantan, are in remote areas that can only be reached by jungle rivers and crumbling roads.

“The weather will determine the smoothness of the logistics process because heavy rain might prevent our boats from navigating the rivers but low tide could strand our craft if it is too dry,” he says.

Mr Irawan’s travails are a snapshot of the immense logistical challenge that infrastructure-poor Indonesia faces to organise parliamentary and presidential elections in the world’s biggest archipelago nation, with 186m voters spread across thousands of islands that stretch for 3,000 miles from east to west.

Sixteen years after the fall of long-ruling dictator Suharto, Indonesia has developed into a thriving, boisterous democracy, where structural problems such as corruption and inequality persist but are freely discussed in the nation’s many media outlets.

While far from flawless, Indonesia’s recent national elections have been freer and fairer than politically troubled neighbours such as Malaysia and Thailand and most other Muslim-majority nations.

With President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stepping down after reaching the legal two-term limit, the conduct of these elections will set the bar of legitimacy for the first new regime in a decade.

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Indonesia election

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From his tumbledown, mouse-infested headquarters in Jakarta, the man charged with running the process is quietly confident.

Husni Kamil Manik, the chairman of the country’s election commission, the KPU, insists that all is going to plan, in spite of early complaints from some political parties about lost ballot papers and voter list manipulation.

“The main problem in the past has been doubts about whether the voting and counting process had been done freely and fairly,” he says. “But we’ve been working on how to improve public transparency.”

Unlike many countries, all vote counting in Indonesia is done in public view during daytime – a feat made possible by the fact that there are 550,000 polling stations serving fewer than 500 voters each.

In 2009, many allegations of manipulation came at the next, “recapitulation” stage, when these votes are tallied at a city and regional level.

To improve the process this year, polling station result forms have been printed with a hologram and election officials are meant to scan and upload each document to a website – a plan made trickier by the lack of internet access in many remote regions.

In depth

Indonesia elections

Indonesian elections

The world’s third biggest democracy is holding parliamentary and local elections in April and a presidential poll in July

“Our legislative election is the largest and most complicated single-day poll in the world,” says Ramlan Surbakti, a professor of politics and former deputy chairman of the KPU. “Although it is not perfect, we are getting much better at it.”

While India has four times as many voters as Indonesia, it holds staggered national elections over a period of weeks to smooth the process.

By contrast, Indonesia holds its national elections in one day, first for the parliament on April 9 and then for the presidency in July, with a run-off election in September if no presidential candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote.

In a country where graft is endemic and infrastructure lacking, the organisational challenge is mind-bogglingly complex.

In April’s simultaneous elections for the national parliament and more than 500 local legislatures, there will be more than 230,000 candidates standing for office, supported by 4.5m election officials.

Roughly 250,000 police officers have been assigned to maintain law and order, with a focus on restive regions such as Aceh and Papua. Like members of the armed forces, they are banned from voting to ensure their neutrality.

It is an expensive process. The KPU has a budget of Rp22.2tn ($2bn) to organise the elections and the 12 political parties and their candidates will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, campaign workers and illegal but widespread handouts to voters.

With more than 50m voters under the age of 30, Titi Anggraini, the executive director of Perludem, an independent election watchdog, hopes that young, tech-savvy activists can help to keep wayward politicians and officials in check through social media.

“The level of transparency from the KPU is far better than previous elections and I believe this openness will be followed by participation from young voters and others,” she says.

But, says Mr Surbakti, the biggest guarantor of a widely accepted result in the presidential election is the recently announced candidacy of Joko Widodo, the Jakarta governor.

He has built a huge poll lead over his closest rivals, former general Prabowo Subianto and tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, because of his down-to-earth style and record of pro-poor policies.

“Mr Widodo is much more popular than the other contenders so it reduces the chances of a dangerously close result, as we’ve seen before in the US and Kenya,” says Mr Surbakti.

Additional reporting by Taufan Hidayat in Ketapang

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