Thousands of migrant workers from Indonesia will head to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to cast their vote for the next Indonesian president this week.
More than 190 million registered voters go to the polls in Indonesia on April 17 but overseas voters have been given from April 7 to April 14 to cast their ballots.
An estimated nine million Indonesians live and work abroad, a community that is larger than the population of 25 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces.
The figure is also bigger than incumbent Joko Widodo’s margin of victory when he was first elected in 2014.
Wita, a domestic worker from Central Java who has lived in Hong Kong for nearly seven years, plans to vote for Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi.
“Jokowi spoke out up when Erwiana was tortured,” Wita told Al Jazeera, referring to domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih who was tortured by her Hong Kong employer in 2014, sparking an international outcry. “He cares about us.”
A survey of 541 overseas Indonesians carried out by the Indonesian Diaspora Network between November 2018 and January 2019 revealed that 85 percent planned to vote.
“Both campaign teams will spend more logistics and campaign effort in countries such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Netherlands and Singapore where a significant majority of the voters live,” said Ericssen Wen, an independent political analyst in Singapore.
“The candidates treat Indonesian voters in Malaysia seriously. It is not surprising as 27 percent of Indonesia’s overseas voters are living in Malaysia.”
Despite that, securing expatriate Indonesians’ democratic rights is not easy because a large percentage are working without proper documentation or living in remote regions far from government facilities.
Data from the Elections Commission shows only two million have registered to vote.
Although there are provisions under Indonesian election law that allow unregistered migrants to vote in person, NGOs do not expect many to take advantage.
Some even say the government is not doing enough to ensure all overseas Indonesians can vote.
“As many as seven million migrant workers are [in danger of] losing their political rights,” said Hariyanto, chairperson of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia).
“We compel the government to ensure that all migrant workers can use their vote.”
The steep turnover of workers – hundreds of thousands either leave or return to Indonesia each year – also makes it a challenge to ensure that all migrant workers are accounted for.
As Malaysia has the highest number of Indonesian migrant workers, authorities plan to open polling stations in smaller cities across the peninsula and in Borneo where many Indonesians live. There is also an option to vote by post or mobile.
Still, it is not easy to cast a vote as some workers rarely have time off or work on remote plantations.
“Domestic workers, who often work in an estate, find it difficult to travel and vote,” said Nasrikah with Serantau Malaysia, a non-profit that works with Indonesian migrant workers.
For undocumented workers, there’s another concern.
“Nobody can guarantee their security, as the Malaysian government can carry out raids anywhere at any time,” added Nasrikah.
Regardless, Widodo, his challenger Prabowo Subianto and several political parties are chasing migrant workers’ votes.
Prabowo has been focusing his attention on Malaysia, with his party, Gerindra, opening an office in 2017 and his local team keen to highlight the former general’s friendly relationship with the country’s prime minister-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim.
Prabowo’s camp is hoping to build on the success of 2014 when Malaysian-based Indonesians supported him.
It was not enough, though, as Widodo, who had the support of many migrant worker organisations, won the overseas vote by seven percent.
This time Widodo’s campaign team has been visiting construction sites, factory accommodation and other places where Indonesians congregate in Malaysia in order to raise awareness of a key achievement: reforms to the migrant worker law, which were passed in 2017.
Beyond increasing social protections for migrant workers, the reforms eliminated the role of recruitment agencies and intermediaries, a key source of exploitation, and increased state oversight of migration.
However, according to Anis Hidayah, executive director of the Indonesian NGO Migrant Care, the law has not yet been fully implemented, meaning most migrant workers are not yet seeing the benefits.
“The Indonesian government had two years to prepare the implementation of that law,” said Hidayah.
“We’re still waiting on regulations on migrant workers’ protection, regulations on monitoring, one-stop services and seafarers.”
Further complicating things for Widodo is that the law, and his administration, has been unable to help an Indonesian domestic worker convicted of murder for killing her abusive employer.
Saudi Arabia executed Tuti Tursilawati last October without notifying her family or the Indonesian government.
The move has been condemned by both candidates.
Tursilawati’s episode was not unusual. According to Migrant Care, more than 74 Indonesians remain on death row abroad, including in Saudi Arabia.
Often, particularly in the Middle East, they lack access to adequate legal representation, leaving concerns about the fairness of their trials.
“We urge the Indonesian government to mobilise political and diplomatic resources to seek the release of hundreds of migrant workers who are threatened with capital punishment throughout the world,” said Hidayah.
Despite these concerns and other challenges, Indonesians continue to go abroad in search of better opportunities.
Figo Kurniawan moved to Malaysia in 2006 for that reason. He is undecided on who he will be voting for. For him, and millions of Indonesians – home and abroad – the key concern will be the economy and jobs.
“As long as the Indonesian government does not provide employment for all its citizens with a decent salary, citizens will continue to become migrant workers,” said Figo.