Sat, 10 Jul 2004

To vote or not to vote: Participation in the 2004 Legislative and Presidential Elections

Muhammad Qodari Jakarta

During the presidential election a few days ago, we witnessed something that we had never seen previously. In a number of polling stations across the country, the polling station committees put on lucky draws for the voters who showed up at the polling stations. A variety of prizes were on offer, ranging from TV sets to goats.

The media reported that polling station committees organized these lucky draws to attract the voters. Maybe the committees assumed that the relatively low turnout by the voters during the legislative elections on April 5 meant that the voters would have little interest in the presidential election.

The committees were correct in their belief that the turnout in the last legislative election was among the lowest in the electoral history in this country. Let's forget the figures for the New Order's seven elections as they were the result of a high degree of voter coercion. However, compared to the 1999 election -- which was the first democratic election after the Soeharto era -- voter turnout in 2004 was indeed poor.

In 1999, of the 118 million registered voters, 92.7 percent cast their ballots. In 2004, of 148 million registered voters, only 124.4 million, or 84 percent, showed up at the polling stations. There is some debate as to why 23.6 million registered voters, or 16 percent, declined to exercise their constitutional rights.

Those advocating abstentionism have been quick to claim that the lower turnout reflects the revival of abstentionism. Abstentionism here refers to people who choose not to vote because they do not believe in the political system, government or the political parties and politicians. The pro-abstention people even go so far as to declare 2004 as the year of victory for abstentionism as the combined percentage of abstainers and those who spoiled their ballots reached 23.3 percent. As we know, the Golkar Party, the winner of legislative elections, only secured 21.6 percent of the votes.

Of course, the pro-abstention activists are mistaken. Most of those who did not show up at the polling stations did, in fact, want to vote. Surveys conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) prior to the legislative elections all showed a consistently high willingness to participate in the election -- around 96-97 percent.

The reason why many people failed to show up on polling day was because they had not received voter cards or confirmation letters from the local election administrators. They simply thought that if they came to the polling stations, they would not be allowed to vote. Lack of voter cards and confirmation letters was a major problem the national election committee (KPU) failed to tackle properly.

Abstention activists were also wrong to include spoiled votes within the abstention category. While it is possible that many abstainers showed up to vote but deliberately spoiled their ballots, it is nevertheless logical to assume that the number of these was insignificant. For an abstainer, it does not make sense for him to come to the polling station and deliberately spoil his ballot when he can simply avoid the inconvenience by staying at home.

The majority of invalid votes in the last legislative elections were most likely due to the fact that the voting method was much more complicated that in previous elections. In the past, all the voter had to do was to choose and perforate a party symbol. Now, apart from perforating the party symbol, the voters are also required to perforate a particular candidate from the list offered by the party. Only perforating the candidate, or perforating a candidate from a different party, will invalidate the ballot. This resulted in a significant number of invalid votes, with the actual percentage being 8.8 percent.

To the surprise of many, the number of "invalid" votes in the presidential election appears to have been slightly higher than in the legislative elections. The official number has not yet been announced by the KPU as ballot counting is still continuing. However, monitoring groups (the NDI and LP3ES), say that the average number of invalid votes was 9.1 percent. These invalid votes were mainly due to the unintentional making of double perforations by the voters. Later, the KPU announced that such votes would not longer be considered as invalid. So, it could turn out that the real number of spoiled ballots in the presidential election will be very low.

As the ballot count is not yet finished, the official voter turnout is not yet available. Surveys by the LSI and IFES prior to the presidential election showed that public enthusiasm for the country's first direct presidential election was slightly higher than the legislative election -- 98 percent according to the LSI survey of June 20-24. Provided that the KPU has managed to improve the mechanism for distributing voter cards and confirmation letters, the high rate of non-participation recorded during the legislative elections will not be repeated.

In a TV interview on Wednesday afternoon, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who heads a group of foreign election observers, said that the turnout on July 5 was around 85 percent -- double the sort of levels normally recorded in the U.S. Indeed, despite administrative problems with voter registration, Indonesia is still a country with one of the highest voter turnout rates in the world.

The question is, why are Indonesians so enthusiastic about voting? We included a question in our survey asking people why they wanted to participate in the election. In the case of the legislative elections, the two dominant answers were that voting was a citizen's obligation and that it was a citizen's right. In the case of the presidential election, another reason was adduced, namely, the responsibility of choosing the nation's leader.

These responses are interesting. Reason number three is good but reason number one is rather worrisome. This is because people who vote due to a perceived obligation tend to be less critical regarding which parties or which presidential candidates they will vote for.

During the 30 years of New Order authoritarian rule, voting was never obligated by law. However people were virtually coerced into voting by the bureaucracy and the Army. The latter also intervened greatly in the electoral process, from telling people whom to vote for to manipulating the ballot count. This has left a unfortunate legacy for Indonesian voters both now and in the future -- a legacy that Indonesians must strive to fight against using continuous civic education.

The writer is Director of Research at the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI).