Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia will go ahead with polls on Wednesday to choose local and regional leaders across the archipelago even though an outbreak of COVID-19 that delayed the election in September remains the most severe in Southeast Asia.
More than 100 million people are eligible to vote – about one-third of the country’s population – with people looking to select political leaders in 270 regions. Voters in nine of the country’s 34 provinces are also set to choose their governors.
But with Indonesia reporting more than 586,000 cases and 18,000 deaths since the pandemic began – and a record high of 8,369 new cases last Thursday – many worry the election will only make matters worse.
Laura Navika Yamani, a lecturer in epidemiology at Universitas Airlangga’s public health faculty in Surabaya, said the poll is a “big risk for our society” noting that Indonesia has not yet passed the first coronavirus peak, and too few tests are being carried out.
“This is evident from the positivity rate that is still high,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Seeing the current condition of Indonesia, I do not agree [with the idea of having elections], especially there is a poster circulating that the committee will come to hospitals to get the votes from patients infected with COVID-19,” she added, referring to the General Elections Commission’s (KPU’s) plan to send officers in full hazmat suits to help voters diagnosed with the disease.
Indonesia’s positivity rate stood at 15.8 percent on Tuesday, compared with the World Health Organization’s recommendation to governments to maintain the figure below 5 percent for at least 14 consecutive days before reopening safely.
The KPU has introduced strict measures for staff and voters, and distributed gloves and other protective equipment to polling stations across the country to help keep people safe.
“I can understand this situation, but we are making efforts,” KPU chairman Arief Budiman said in a webinar on Monday on concerns about the pandemic. He added that everyone from the KPU headquarters down to the polling station committees had to be healthy before they were allowed to work, but did not elaborate on whether COVID-19 tests were compulsory.
“We ensure that voters who exercise their voting rights are protected by creating health protocols from entering to leaving the polling station,” he said.
Adrianus Meliala, a member at the Ombudsman of the Republic of Indonesia, a state institution that supervises public services in the country, earlier called on the KPU to “speed up” the distribution of PPE to polling stations, saying about 70 per cent of the equipment was still at regional KPU warehouses a week before the vote.
“So they are sort of like three, four days behind schedule,” he told Al Jazeera.
There had been no significant reports of disruptions to PPE, Budiman said, although floods in the country’s North Sumatra province had “quite disrupted” the operation there. As of Sunday evening, he said data showed at least 87 percent had been distributed.
Indonesia’s elections are closely watched because local and regional leaders often emerge onto the national stage, including President Joko Widodo who began his political career as the mayor of Solo in 2005 before becoming the governor of Jakarta in 2012.
There has been added interest this year because several candidates come from families of current political leaders.
High-profile candidates include Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Widodo’s son, and Bobby Nasution, his son-in-law. They are running for mayor in the cities of Surakarta, known as Solo, and Medan, respectively.
Yoes Kenawas, a PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University in the United States, found there were 52 such candidates back in 2015, but at least 146 people for this year’s elections. It is “the most in Indonesia’s history so far”, he said.
Kenawas, who has also studied political dynasties in Indonesia, said the increase was made possible because many politicians, who were elected in 2010 and 2015, had already served two terms and were no longer able to run for office. Many of them see their own family as the best candidates to preserve their legacy and political interests.
“This is the first in Indonesia’s history where the active president’s children and in-laws, the children of the vice president and even the children of ministers participate directly in the regional elections when their parents or relatives are still in office,” he said.
“It is increasingly proven that political dynasty is an indicator in which the space to compete, although still wide, is getting narrower,” he added.
Indonesians themselves are opposed to political dynasties – a survey conducted in July this year by a company linked to the prominent media company Kompas Gramedia, found 60.8 per cent of respondents disagreed with such dynasties and 67.9 percent of respondents aged 17 to 30 considered such practices bad.
Aisah Putri Budiatri, a researcher at the Center for Political Studies of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), said this year’s election showed “the failure of political parties to recruit regional head candidates based on internal party cadres”.
“Many of these kinship-based candidates are not seasoned politicians in the areas of candidacy and have not built deep-rooted networks either within the party or with the community in their constituencies,” she told Al Jazeera.
Other groups are more concerned the pandemic will put too many voters at risk, even with the measures designed to protect people.
Voters will have to wear masks and single-use gloves to cast their ballots, follow staggered voting, and maintain physical distancing at polling stations, which will also be periodically disinfected. Those whose body temperature is above 37.3 degrees Celsius (99.14F) will also have to go to a separate booth so they do not interact with other voters.
“The government’s neglectful attitude by continuing to hold simultaneous regional elections has proven to endanger the health and safety of the lives of participants and the election committee, as well as the community,” Citizen coalition LaporCovid-19, which works on a data science project on the pandemic in Indonesia, said in a statement on December 6.
“The government should know and be aware of the risks that occur. This is a form of systematic and widespread violation of human rights.”
Budiatri of LIPI said there were groups of voters who had decided to abstain because they were opposed to the poll being held during the pandemic.
“They are disappointed that the local elections are still being pushed to be held during the pandemic, even though there is a risk this coercion will increase the number of COVID-19 cases,” she said. “As a form [of protest], they refuse to come to polling stations.”
President Widodo has said the elections must go ahead because people have a right to choose their leaders and further postponement would create a power vacuum.
Masdalina Pane, head of professional development at Perhimpunan Ahli Epidemiologi Indonesia, a professional association of Indonesian epidemiologists, said polling stations across the country will not be overcrowded because the nation is in the tenth month of the outbreak and Indonesians are well aware of health protocols.
“For polling stations, it is not a problem because those are usually built on the neighbourhood level. There are few people, the hours are also a bit long … and it can be managed,” she said.
Indonesia is not the first country in the region to hold an election during the pandemic. South Korea held elections in April with strict safety protocols in place and no indication of a subsequent spike in cases. Singapore went to the polls in July – also with strict measures including staggered voting – with no post-poll jump in cases.
Neighbouring Malaysia did less well. An election in its Borneo state of Sabah in September seeded a third wave of COVID-19 across the country.
Ornella Agatha, a 21-year-old university student who will vote in Bangka Belitung Islands province in the west of the country, recognises the risk from the virus, but is confident she will be fine as long as she follows the health protocols on polling day.
“[I am] actually exercising my voting rights because it is a shame if we have voting rights, we instead choose to abstain,” she told Al Jazeera.