Sat, 22 Feb 2003

Outlawing nonvoting drives

Benny Subianto, Research Associate Center for Chinese Studies, Jakarta

The legislature has finally approved the election bill, which maintained a clause stipulating that anybody who campaigned against voting in the 2004 elections must be tried in a court of law. The campaigners are to be punished with a sentence of up to one year in prison or a fine of up to Rp 10 million.

This clause applies to anyone who campaigns "with violence and the threat of violence" against voting in the elections, and those "who obstruct" anyone trying to exercise suffrage; but it is feared that it will be interpreted loosely as "anyone who campaigns against voting".

This is a serious backlash in the process of democratization in Indonesia.

Legislators have said the stipulation was necessary to guarantee suffrage for every eligible citizen in the 2004 elections. Apparently, members of the House of Representatives (DPR) did not realize that since the 1955 elections and up to the last election in 1999, voting has been considered a right, instead of an obligation, in Indonesia. It is not like Australia, where voting is an obligation, hence those citizens who do not vote are punishable by law.

The political trend of not voting was a big issue in the 1971 elections. For the first time, some political activists coined the term golongan putih or golput for short, meaning "white group", pointing to non-voters in the national elections. Political and student activists were indeed looking forward to a free and democratic elections in 1971.

When the elections approached, however, they were desperate to push as much as possible for a democratic political leadership. The rules and regulations of the 1971 elections game were unfairly designed for the benefit of the Golkar Party, who, together with the military, had become intimidating.

Non-voting campaigners consciously and calculatingly tried to persuade eligible voters not to vote, because the elections would not produce a democratic political leadership, nor a potential distribution of elites outside Golkar.

The non-voting campaigners, among others Arief Budiman, who is now a professor at the University of Melbourne, coined the term golput for the non-voters in order to mock Golkar, which also identified itself as a group, as in its full name Golongan Karya, while it clearly behaved and was organized like a political party. The golput activists used an empty, white pentagon as their logo in mockery of Golkar, whose logo is a banyan tree within a pentagon.

The 1971 elections were widely considered violent, dirty and intimidating. Nevertheless, the election law at that time did not stipulate any legal sanctions against non-voters, although a number of activists were detained and interrogated for a few days.

About 20 years later, during the 1992 election campaign, a group of student activists from the Semarang-based University of Diponegoro campaigned for non-voting. The powerful New Order regime detained two of the student leaders, Lukas Luwarso and Poltak Wibowo, who were brought to court and sentenced to four months' imprisonment. The panel of judges argued that the two activists violated the articles of the Criminal Code concerning spreading hatred in public, hatzaai artikelen.

It is important to note that even the election law during the authoritarian New Order era did not criminalize whoever campaigns for non-voting.

Campaigning for voting or non-voting in an election is, indeed, the implementation of freedom of expression as guaranteed by the 1945 Constitution.

All laws and regulations should be deliberated in the context of an individual's basic rights. Criminalizing individuals who promote or campaign for non-voting is not justified, and is politically incorrect. Criminalization is only justified if a particular action causes social chaos that endangers public interests.

Based on Indonesia's experience since the 1971 elections, the non-voters' movement and campaigning have never imperiled society. In fact, it is the election campaigns of political parties which have often led to riots, such as those in Central Jakarta in 1982.

During the New Order, the non-voting campaign was a symbol of resistance against the authoritarian ruler who forced his political will. For the regime, elections were necessary merely to gain political legitimacy as a "democratic" country.

Any systematic effort to boycott the elections was considered a political disturbance. Since the non-voting movement was only successful in attracting the urban and well-educated middle- class, the Soeharto regime was only irritated by this gravel in its shoes.

The political atmosphere is different now, as non-voting campaigns indicate distrust in political parties. Political parties are deemed to have failed to represent and articulate its constituents. Worse, politicians in the House simply enrich themselves, while their contributions to the law-making process are very poor.

Voters' high expectations for political parties and legislators have become disillusioned during the last four years. Therefore, voting in 2004 might be irrelevant, since voters do not trust any politician or political party.

Having realized that none of the major political parties will gain majority votes in the 2004 elections, all eligible voters are now being forced to vote in the election -- a last-ditch effort of paranoid major parties to gain considerable votes.

The greater the number of people voting in the election, the better it is for political parties as well as the government. However, a smaller number of voters does not necessary worsen the value of an election. In the United States, dubbed the champion of democracy, the average turnout of voters is only about 60 percent of those eligible to vote. This, however, does not curtail the political significance of the elections.

The urban, well-educated voters have become disillusioned with the political parties. The only way for political parties to convince people to vote in the 2004 elections is to take prompt action to prove that they represent and articulate the people's interests.

More importantly, it must be remembered that political parties and elections are indispensable in the process towards democracy.