Gorontalo, Indonesia – After being printed and counted in Indonesia’s eastern city of Makassar, election workers seal and pack a wad of ballot papers, along with other election equipment, into boxes for their journey into the mountains of Sulawesi.
It takes three days for them to get to the northern city of Gorontalo and a further two hours by road and foot, including a half-hour hike along a dirt track and across a hanging bridge to reach their final destination of Tulabolo, a village of 500 voters.
“Two years ago, this road did not exist and it would have been a lot harder to get here,” said Arfan Suleman, a local election worker in charge of delivering ballots to the village.
People in Tulabolo on Wednesday will vote to pick the country’s next president, as well as four representatives in local and regional government.
Indonesia’s polls are more than one of the world’s biggest single-day democratic exercises; they’re also a complicated challenge in logistics.
About half the citizens of the world’s fourth most populous country live in rural areas and an estimated 10 million households have no electricity, so ensuring the people have ballots to cast and an understanding of who they are voting for is an often monumental task.
The road that smoothed the journey of Arfan and his team is a result of one of incumbent president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo‘s key policies – and a major campaign platform.
The village fund programme gives each settlement access to a portion of the state’s $5bn village budget, with at least $50,000 going to each one of them.
Many villages have used the money to build roads – 191,000km in total, according to Eko Sandjojo, the villages minister.
“The villages fund makes people more connected [to Jakarta], but that’s not enough,” he said. “Without the infrastructure that connects villages to other villages, I think the economic development is still a bit slow.”
The challenge of geography
Better roads cannot address all the problems caused by Indonesia’s difficult terrain and unforgiving weather.
Thousands of election workers in the world’s third-largest democracy wrestle with the archipelago’s geography to ensure villages of just a few dozen people can vote.
In Aru, a large but neglected island chain closer to the Australian city of Darwin than Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, the most remote settlements can only be reached by a day’s travel on costly rented boats.
“Aru is a scattered archipelago,” said Labok Yos, a member of the election commission for the islands, which are home to about 80,000 people.
“The biggest problem is simply geography. There is no regular transportation around the islands, so we’re forced to use chartered boats.”
Even further east, in central Papua, Daud Mita has been working for a decade to make sure residents of mountain hamlets have a chance to make their voices heard.
He has overseen improvements that mean trips that used to take 10 hours now take just three.
“In a few areas, we have been able to start going by land because the roads have been paved, although another flood has destroyed the new bridges we were starting to use,” Daud said.
The local election commission uses helicopters and small planes, and equips workers with professional gear for a six-hour hike through the forest to get boxes and ballots where they need to be. The most remote area requires a day and night’s journey on foot.
Despite the daunting obstacles, Daud said: “Thank God, we finished distributing the ballots to all the sites.”
Voters must punch a hole in a ballot and drop it in a box for the vote to be valid, and millions of workers are needed to ensure election day runs smoothly.
Election workers began holding information sessions months ago to teach people how the process works. In the most far-flung areas, public meetings included ensuring voters knew who the candidates were.
Without stable electricity, much less internet, often the only information about who is running comes from campaign posters delivered by election workers.
Widodo’s opponent, former general and businessman Prabowo Subianto, has attempted to stoke scepticism about the election process, calling for supporters to challenge the results if they are not in his favour.
Election workers admit the process, involving 800,000 polling stations strung out across the archipelago, carries risks of corruption.
“That’s what we’re afraid of,” Daud said. “We hope election observers can take action if there are reports of fraud because we are limited in our ability to make sure it doesn’t happen after we leave the ballot boxes.”
Around Tulabolo, one local candidate was caught buying votes while, in a different settlement, supervisors said they were concerned about potential ballot stuffing because it was the home village of another person running for office.
The elections commission at the national level did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions about the integrity of the ballot in hard-to-reach locations.
In some rural areas in Papua, more than a five-and-a-half-hour flight east of Jakarta, voting is done through the noken system, in which ballots are collected in a traditional bag woven from tree roots that gives the process its name.
Sometimes, the head of a village votes on the people’s behalf, sometimes the bag is simply used in place of a ballot box.
The method has been criticised for undermining voting secrecy and being susceptible to cheating.
Daud says his election commission requires that people vote individually, but as a village, they can use noken if they want.
“The noken system is an effective way to vote, especially in mountainous and inland areas,” said Hari Suroto, an archaeologist based in Papua’s capital, Jayapura.
“Populations live scattered on the slopes of mountains, in valleys and in forests, where there is no road access and it can take days to get to the polling station.”
Those who work closely with rural communities say it is important that villagers have the chance to vote because they are often directly affected by government initiatives or development projects.
Over the last three years, there has been a significant reduction in poverty, said Ah Maftuchan, executive director of Prakarsa, an Indonesian research NGO.
“Nationally, the speed of the drop in poverty has been much faster in villages than cities,” Maftuchan said.
“But in more remote areas, especially in the east, like Papua and East Nusa Tenggara, poverty is still very high, because the living standards are so far from ideal.”
In smoothing the roads to the villages, Widodo may well have been trying to clear his own path back to office.