Yahukimo, West Papua, Indonesia – It was late on Tuesday afternoon, just hours before Indonesia was due to go to the polls, and the ballots had still not arrived in Mugi, a village in the central highlands of Papua, the most easterly province in the archipelago.
With the ballots still in Dekai, the area’s main town several hours away, the potential delay had local residents Bastiana Asso and her husband, Zeep Siep, worried.
Asso was eager to take part and cast her ballot for her favourite candidate, incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, in an election that pitted him against his longtime rival, former general Prabowo Subianto.
But even if she did get to vote, Asso was not sure her choice would be considered by the village elders who would be making the final decision under noken, a traditional voting system in the area where a village head collects ballots from locals and casts one vote on their behalf.
“My heart says I will vote for Jokowi,” she told Al Jazeera. “But the district will decide.”
Used in 12 of the province’s 29 regencies, noken gets its name from a large bag that is used to hold votes.
The bag, which is traditionally knitted from wood fibre or leaves by elderly indigenous women, is a symbol of the creativity and karma that is possessed by people who are cultured and civilised, according to Titus Pekei, a West Papuan researcher and the director of the Ecology Papua Institute.
Theo Kossay, chairman of the Papua Province General Election Commission, said the system has two forms. “Firstly, noken is a ballot box,” he told Al Jazeera. “Secondly, noken is a system to be used to decide through deliberation by the head of each tribe.”
The noken system was adopted after the fall of former leader General Muhammad Soeharto in the late 1990s, when the province, a nearly six-hour flight from the capital, Jakarta, got special autonomy within Indonesia. The idea was to meld the so-called modern system of Indonesia with the traditional West Papuan tribal system.
On Wednesday morning, with the time to vote fast approaching, Asso got herself ready to go to the polling station, putting on her makeup and her best clothes. But when the head of the village announced the voting would be delayed because the ballots had still not arrived, everyone was shocked.
Hundreds of voters from across the Mugi district gathered in front of the police station in Kurima village where the ballots were supposed to be delivered, shouting at election officials and demanding an explanation. Some of the mainly male crowd were armed with machetes.
“There are no ballots,” said Herepa Hesegem, a provincial legislative candidate from the Indonesia Solidarity Party.
“This is because West Papua is very remote and we can’t send it by car. We need a helicopter.”
About two hours passed before the ballots were brought in by helicopter. By then, Hesegem said it was too late to hold the vote, adding that it would probably take place on Thursday instead.
In nearby Nduga, the voting – also with noken – was further complicated by an escalation in violence between the Indonesian military and separatist fighters from the West Papua National Liberation Army that began late last year and has forced many villagers from their homes.
The election commission set up a polling station in the middle of a national park so that the displaced people could cast their votes.
“They vote in the middle of the forest,” said Cristin Ronsumbre, a member of the supervisory committee.
The local legislative candidates were each allowed to hold their noken and announce to the voters: “This is my noken, please put your ballots here if you want to vote for me.”
The voting happened so fast that officials realised residents had not shown their identity cards only after it was over.
The locals didn’t cast ballots for a president.
“Because it’s the noken system, the head of village and district will vote for them,” Ronsumbre said.
The continued use of the noken has sparked debate not only among experts on democracy, but also among West Papuans themselves. Some say the noken enables electoral fraud and risks triggering conflict over the results.
In the last regional polls in 2011, some 57 people were killed at the nomination stage in the Puncak Jaya regency election, according to Titi Anggraini, the executive director of the Association for Elections and Democracy, also known as Perludem.
Nevertheless, Indonesia’s constitutional court continues to support the system as a traditional form of deliberation.
“There is an assumption that Papuans are organised through tribal systems, in which tribal chiefs decide what is the best for the community,” said Veronika Kusumaryati, a Harvard University anthropologist who specialises in West Papua. All Papuan chiefs are male.
The Indonesian government in Jakarta has been nurturing the system in an attempt to show it is receptive to Papuan demands for self-determination, and to ensure the local community’s participation in national elections.
But its persistence also reflects the central government’s reluctance to enforce the special autonomy law, which stipulates that Papua should be able to form local parties in the same way that this happens in Aceh, another semi-autonomous province that is at the opposite end of the archipelago.
In practice, Papuans are prohibited from establishing their own political parties because the central government is afraid that it will lead to West Papua’s “separation” from the republic.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, Asso sat outside her traditional house, known as a honai. She had still not been able to vote, and had no idea what was going to happen with the election.
She heard about the chaos in front of the police station.
“This [the protest and chaos] is men’s business,” she said. “I will wait for my village head to call me.”