Indonesia 2013: A Year of Voting Dangerously?
Indonesia 2013: A Year of Voting Dangerously?
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Commentary / Asia 9 minutes

Indonesia 2013: A Year of Voting Dangerously?

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono this week expressed concern that local elections would be a distraction from governing in Indonesia, not only in 2014, when his term ends, but also this year, when at least 144 positions for governor, bupati (district chief), and mayor could be contested. He fears that incumbents, challengers, police, civil servants and other officials administering one-third of the country might focus more on these campaigns rather than doing their jobs. But the consequence of what he calls “a year of politics and elections” is more treacherous than just an increase in already poor service delivery and chronic civil service absenteeism.

As some recently warned, these local elections could make 2013 a dangerous year. It was a prophecy quickly fulfilled when in the first major race of 2013 one local councillor was killed on 29 January on the day Papua province voted for a new governor. But while the weaknesses of the system are many and well known, there are some solutions. As Crisis Group first noted in December 2010 in our Preventing Violence in Local Elections report, national institutions need to play a more hands on role in local elections. Rather than just standing on the sidelines, they should fulfil their proper mandates by acting like a referee in these elections, heading off conflict,  enforcing the law transparently and reducing the threat of deadly violence.

Contentious local races

Each local election in Indonesia’s 34 provinces and more than 500  kabupaten (district) and municipalities is a heated competition between local powerful figures who are determined to do whatever it takes to win. These often desperate measures can include electoral fraud, buying votes, and mobilising protests. Encouraging supporters to take to the streets either during a campaign, or especially after a loss, often leads to violence, either coordinated or impromptu. In Pangkalan Bun in Central Kalimantan, for example, they burnt down the bupati’s heritage-listed residence. Racial, tribal, religious or ethnic issues are carelessly used for political gain as personal rivalries between ambitious bureaucrats and cashed up entrepreneurs become public. Candidates can resurrect their connection to defunct ancient sultanates or try to use family political dynasties as their springboard into office. Political parties are merely vehicles for these ambitious individuals, who shop around to see which one will support them. Office holders or incumbents switch allegiance at short notice. While most polls do pass peacefully and good leaders can be chosen, the failure of authorities to understand these local dynamics in contentious polls and properly manage disputes has led to the unnecessary loss of lives and destruction of property.

The deadliest local election dispute in this round occurred in Papua in the remote Puncak district. It had nothing to do with separatist sentiments and nor was it between natives and non-Papuan migrants. While we mentioned it in our August 2012 report on the Dynamics of Violence in Papua, election violence receives little attention outside the province either within Indonesia or abroad. The conflict festered during 2011-12 and has killed dozens from two indigenous Papuan clans as they fought over who would be the endorsed candidate of the emerging Gerindra Party led by former special forces chief Prabowo Subianto. [Accurate casualty figures from the hard to access highlands have been tricky to obtain.] As in many places around the country, the local commissioners have been poorly chosen. They lack the experience and authority needed to resolve minor disputes at an early stage. In this case, it was the disputed registration of the party’s candidate that triggered a tribal war.

The increased number of local elections means this year there will be more places across the country where simple procedures, such as validating a party endorsement or appointing local commissioners, can be mismanaged and go wrong. The larger number of elections this year is in itself an example of poor management. Originally, it was planned that only 101 regions, or one-fifth of the country, would elect their leaders this year. But a new national election commission (KPU) overrode that decision and decided to add 43 more polls to the roster of elections in 2013. The Jakarta-based KPU’s self-centred reason was that it does not want to be bothered by any local race in 2014, the year for national legislative and presidential elections. This has irked some incumbents in the regions whose terms in office must now be cut short. Without a firm regulatory basis for this decision, there are indications that increasingly confident local leaders could end up defying the state, ignoring the KPU and creating even more trouble. In addition, there are several elections from 2012 still under the review by the Constitutional Court and which may have to be rerun.

Dangers in the less-known areas

The biggest dangers lie far away from the well-watched races. Local election organisers in lesser-known areas, similar to Puncak, are struggling with their jobs. Where the national and regional media scrutinise the higher profile races, the candidates and organisers tend to be better behaved. In 2013, the gubernatorial elections in the populous West Java and North Sumatra provinces will be the ones receiving the most attention. These will be heated campaigns but candidates, organisers and the security forces are being watched by the media, public and their respective superiors. This acts as an incentive to pay attention, be competent, and prevent violence because failure to perform could be costly to future careers.

For the most part, those in positions of authority in provincial Indonesia do a good enough job. In the first year of the 2010-2013 local election cycle there were about 200 local races and at least 21 of them experienced  violence against property and people, with only one death in Toraja district on Sulawesi. [See Appendix B of Preventing Violence in Local Elections for a more complete list of electoral violence in 2010.] Almost all of this violence was directed at local election commissioners and was triggered by electoral mismanagement. There were no such problems in the big gubernatorial races or in other races in cities or districts that attracted some national scrutiny. The violent incident that received the most national attention took place in Mojokerto district and was spotlighted because it was close to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second city and a media hub. This proximity allowed journalists to give the rest of the nation images of burning cars almost in real-time. But the conflict behind it was a long running local saga that could have benefited from early intervention as simple as a police warning to competing camps to behave; however, this issue failed to attract any national or provincial attention. There were no orders from above making this a local policing priority among different district commanders.

There were fewer elections in 2011 and 2012 with less violent incidents but these conflicts took more lives. The Puncak infighting was the most deadly incident of 2011. Another remote district election in Papua, this time in Tolikara, was the deadliest in 2012 when the local election commission and police failed to anticipate a tribal war between supporters of the two leading candidates that lasted for two months and killed at least eleven people.

The management of elections in marginal districts is weak due to the failure to recruit competent commissioners. There is a shortage of people with the required management skills and political experience in these regions. Those who have such qualities tend to run for office, join campaigns or are discouraged by the low pay and bureaucratic selection procedures. The result is many commissioners are jobseekers with diplomas but little gravitas or knowhow. When a dispute arises, they are clueless about how to find a solution and spineless in confronting problematic candidates, who are mostly powerful local figures.

In reviewing the official list of when terms of local officials expire in 2013, the elections that must be held in 2013 can be calculated. There is one race that was not originally scheduled that should be watched closely as it has already been violent. On 15 January, the Constitutional Court annulled the result of the 27 November 2012 election in Morowali district, Central Sulawesi. The court found the election commissioners had been wrong to allow a former district chief to become a candidate when he had failed his medical test. In testimony it was revealed that the commissioners were civil servants when the candidate was in power ten years ago. They were not brave enough to disqualify their former superior. They also turned a blind eye when another nominee, the incumbent, distributed rice to villagers during the three-day no-campaign period immediately before the vote, a move that triggered a clash between protesters and police. Voters must go to the polls again this year and the provincial election commission, which is located in a city twelve hours drive from Morowali’s capital, must take over the running of this tense poll after the four of five elections commission were fired by the honour council overseeing election organisers, which is led by Jimly Asshiddiqie, a respected former chief justice.

The Morowali rerun is also complicated by the politics of “pemekaran” or the creation of new regions carved out of old ones. The incumbent promised residents in the northern side of the district that his re-election meant they would get the green light to become an autonomous region. Two weeks after the vote, when the incumbent was poised to win, the national parliament refused to approve the establishment of the North Morowali district. On 15 and 17 December 2012, protesters burned cars belonging to the regional administration. Residents there now are angry at the incumbent and have threatened to attack him if he goes to northern Morowali.

Overall, the pemekaran drive has increased the number of elections. From 1999 to 2009, 205 new autonomous regions have been created. All became new political arenas but only a  few have brought services closer to their residents. The poor performance in governing led to a freeze that ended late last year with the approval for twelve  new regions out of the nineteen proposed. Political players in the  seven rejected areas, especially in northern Morowali, are gearing up to oust office holders who failed to fulfil the promise of pemekaran. Without good electoral management and security, elections in these places could easily turn violent.


In the long run, the way election commissioners are selected needs to be overhauled. Local authority, maturity, and demonstrated leadership skills must be key elements in the selection process rather than the ability to pass written tests. They should also receive better training on public communication and solving common electoral problems. Since Crisis Group first recommended such changes in 2010 little seems to have been done and the quality of the commissioners remains a problem. The national government itself has put forward a draft law that proposes changes to the way local elections should be organised but it is one of many laws trapped in the distracted national parliament focused more on preparing for its own elections next year rather than actually legislating.

But rather than wait for the law to change, there are steps that the executive could take now that might have an immediate impact on mitigating violence in local elections. Knowing that many of these local commissions may be overwhelmed by the regional political pressure they are facing, national bodies including KPU, the police and Yudhoyono’s government should be more active in preventing local election violence. They must not stand aloof and only react after violence is reported. The President could use his power to regulate to improve local election procedures or invoke the authority given to him as the head of a unitary state to warn regional leaders against defying KPU or Constitutional Court rulings. The police, who report directly to the president, need clear orders from the top. The national police chief could be instructed to make it clear to provincial commanders that election security is a national priority that requires officers on the ground to stay neutral and maintain vigilance.

In each district, election organisers, supervisors and police must draw on local knowledge and work together to identify sources of tension and potential conflict. This already happens in the best run districts, but must become standard for all polls. The conflict between the two clans in Puncak, for example, was well-known by locals, but was belatedly conveyed to authorities. The nature of the conflicts will vary from district to district but the solution will be the same. Experience shows that good communication and real cooperation between these three agencies is the key to preventing violence. Law enforcement authorities should demonstrate zero tolerance towards attacks on election authorities or polling facilities. Police should not drop their guard and regard an election security operation being over until the formal inauguration, which can take time if losing parties take their post-vote grievances to court.

Local election violence in Indonesia is not an expression of deep seated tensions. These are short-term struggles between powerful individuals and their supporters. The key to controlling them is to understand the underlying conflicts better and for national institutions to pay more attention to these small town races. Better collaboration between electoral organisers and security forces combined with more active involvement from national bodies and even greater media attention could all led to quick results. In the end, this better refereeing will produce cleaner matches.

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