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Votes in the bag? The noken system and conflict in Indonesian Papua
Votes in the bag? The noken system and conflict in Indonesian Papua
Commentary / Asia

Votes in the bag? The noken system and conflict in Indonesian Papua

Indonesia’s system of direct local elections remains relatively young and in flux. Since their introduction in 2005, a number of changes at national level have broadly sought to strengthen the role of elections commissions in administering elections; results have been mixed. The system remains under review, with some in government even pushing to roll back direct local polls. A practice of voting by consensus, customary in some areas of the Papuan highlands, is one anomaly that deserves greater attention. Known colloquially as the nokensystem after the traditional bag made from bark that highlanders carry, its application varies and it is not covered by either national or provincial electoral regulations. Noken involves the divvying up of votes at village level by community members through consensus. Traditionally, voters may have placed these votes in a noken bag. A case brought to Indonesia’s Constitutional Court by a losing pair of candidates in the Puncak Jaya district has highlighted the problems with this system and underlined the broader issue of weak government in the easternmost province.

In our recent report, Indonesia: Dynamics of Violence in Papua, we looked at how one factor that can play a role in putting the brakes on conflict in Indonesia—strong local government—is largely absent in Papua, the country’s most violent province. There is much frustration among Papuans about the failure of the 2001 special autonomy law, which many had hoped would strengthen their role in local decision-making. But in the absence of a coordinated strategy or good faith effort by either Jakarta or provincial lawmakers in Jayapura to strengthen special autonomy, the cause has provided cover for a number of self-interested ploys by local politicians.

The election of a new governor has been held up for more than a year as a dispute continues over the role of the provincial assembly (DPR Papua) in organising a new election. One group of Papuan lawmakers argued that they deserve a role in the vetting of candidates (a role not given to provincial assemblies elsewhere). Spearheaded by members of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, headed in the province by Lukas Enembe, who intends to run for governor, the initiative seems chiefly an attempt to block the candidacy of the incumbent, Bas Suebu, whose term ended last year, and who narrowly beat Enembe in 2006. They have since argued that the issue is the last stand in a battle to maintain the viability of Papua’s special autonomy–that if their arguments are struck down, even moderate Papuans will be driven towards support for independence. These claims are disingenuous at best as they ignore the reality that one major obstacle to implementation of special autonomy has been the failure of DPR Papua members to draft the necessary provincial regulations.

Late last year, members of the DPR Papua drafted and approved a provincial regulation giving them a vetting role, drawing on a patchwork of national laws and regulations over the past decade they say support their case. Others, including the provincial elections commission (KPU Papua) do not agree. They point to national laws that have since strengthened the role of the elections commissions in administering elections and that supersede the earlier regulations. The ministry of home affairs, which reviews provincial legislation, threw up its hands over the issue in April following months of strained negotiations, assenting to the DPR Papua’s vetting role. The elections commission then took the provincial assembly to the Constitutional Court claiming the assembly had illegally usurped its role. The court is still deliberating over the case, but issued a provisional order on 19 July that freezes any further steps in the election until it reaches a final decision.

Looking ahead to the election, Enembe’s supporters have also spoken of the need to respect local wisdom and traditions (kearifan lokal) in the holding of the election. They say this is particularly important given a string of district-level elections in Papua in the past two years that have either been deferred or postponed indefinitely due to violence.

But elections held in one district earlier this year provide an example of the dangers of applying local traditions when paired with weak enforcement of electoral regulations. Puncak Jaya, a district (kabupaten) set in the central highlands of Papua, held local elections on 28 May 2012 to replace the district head (bupati) Lukas Enembe, the gubernatorial contender. There were two leading contenders to take over the post: Enembe’s deputy Henok Ibo and a local assembly member named Agus Kogoya. The problem arose over the use of the nokensystem and the failure to keep even basic records of how the communities voted.

Any consensus-based voting system raises questions over the extent to which it upholds individual rights to vote and to the privacy of voting decisions, as Indonesian and international law requires. It also leaves the system vulnerable to both fraud and intimidation. As detailed in the case, in one sub-district no individual ballots were punched, and no record kept of how votes were awarded at village or even sub-district level. Instead, an agreement was reached that “all 14,394 votes from the people of Mewoluk sub-district [would] be given to the candidate pair that wins overall”. But many of the witnesses called before the court had different recollections of how the villagers had voted, and the parties differed on what an “overall” win signified. Kogoya’s supporters interpreted it to mean the votes would go to whichever candidate won at district level (where they believe they received the most votes), while the district elections commission ultimately awarded it to the incumbents, who had the most votes in the sub-district.

The confusion led to real tension in the district capital, Mulia, in the days before results were announced. Supporters of all the candidates gathered en masse in front of the elections commission office, and the police apparently came to the conclusion that they could not ensure the commission’s security amid alleged intimidation by Kogoya’s supporters. Once “thousands” had gathered, the Puncak Jaya police chief decided the only option was for the commission to be evacuated from the highland district.

The counting of votes by the commission took place instead in the island district of Biak (two hops away by plane), which only increased suspicions over the potential for fraud. All 14,394 votes from Mewoluk were awarded to the incumbent Ibo, based on the commission’s understanding that he had received the most votes in the subdistrict and thus, under the terms of the agreement, should be awarded them all. This proved significant to the overall tally: without the Mewoluk votes, Ibo would have lost to Kogoya.

Following the announcement of results, Kogoya filed suit against the local elections commission (KPUD), claiming they had improperly favoured the incumbents in the administration of the election. The court accepted the complaint and on 7 July ordered the election to be re-held in the six villages of Mewoluk within 90 days.

The noken practice has been upheld by the Constitutional Court in at least three cases. Each time the Court has argued it must balance the violation of the right to an individual and secret ballot with constitutional provisions upholding customary adat law. In 2009, the judges wrote in a case in Yahukimo district that “if forced to hold an election using the laws in effect, there is a concern that conflict could arise between community groups. The court is of the opinion that it is preferable for [the communities] not to be involved in [or] moved towards a system of competition [or] splits within and between groups that could disturb the harmony that they have otherwise preserved.”

But the Puncak Jaya dispute reveals the vulnerability of the system to significant abuse; it also calls into question the logic of affirming the practice of voting by acclamation in an effort to prevent conflict. Problems in this and other local elections in Papua have come not from inescapable cultural differences but from inconsistent application of electoral regulations.

Noken looks likely to be used in large parts of the highlands in the upcoming gubernatorial elections. While it may be too late to draft and approve specific regulations on how to accommodate this form of voting in time for the polls, stepping up voter education efforts should be a priority for the provincial KPU, with guidelines on minimum standards for polling station records. Clearer regulations should then be drafted as soon as possible, in advance of future rounds of local elections.

Much remains to be done to make Papua’s special autonomy regime function as its supporters once hoped. Rather than allowing the issue to be held hostage to electoral politics, a more coordinated approach between the central government and Papuan politicians to addressing the weaknesses would be far more constructive. This should be a priority for Papua’s next governor—once an election is finally held.

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013