With national elections now less than one year away, it is worth asking: has the cyber-fueled celebrity of Jakarta governor Joko Widodo — popularly known as Jokowi — obscured an even more potent force in Indonesia’s electoral politics?
While Jokowi-endorsed candidates recently lost gubernatorial elections in North Sumatra and West Java, headlines proclaimed “Golput Wins in the North Sumatra Gubernatorial Election,” and “Golput Wins the 2013 West Java Gubernatorial Election.” Golput has even been credited with winning the past two national elections, scoring 23.3 percent of votes in 2004 and 39.1 percent in 2009.
So what exactly is Golput, and to what extent can Golput be credited with impacting voter turnout and election results in Indonesia?
Golput first emerged as a form of protest vote in the early 1970s during Indonesia’s New Order — at a time when rigged elections ensured victory for the ruling Golkar party. The word Golput, an intentional skewer of Golkar, is an abbreviation of golongan putih , or white group/party — referring to protest marking or non-marking of the ballot, rendering that ballot invalid. At that time and under those political conditions, Golput was a powerful symbol of protest.
But times have changed. In 1999, during the first post-Suharto elections, 48 political parties registered to compete. While this number has declined over time to 12 at present, plus three local parties in Aceh, voters do have some degree of choice. Freedom of expression has improved notably since 1999 — as has transparency and accountability of election administration (and subsequent public scrutiny of elections). And during the past few years, there has been an explosion of media through which citizens can express their political dissatisfaction.
Within this changing political landscape, the definition of Golput has been stretched in different directions and to suit different arguments. Some define Golput as the non-exercising of one’s right to vote. Others maintain the “protest primacy” of Golput but include within it informed and intentional abstention. Often, it is used as a grab-bag for all non-votes, from voters who do not vote, to those who cast invalid ballots. Each of these interpretations of Golput runs counter to its roots. In Indonesia’s reform era, Golput has all but lost relevance. What was once a proud statement of defiance is now a banner headline for declining voter turnout.
Of more practical importance, continued reliance on the Golput brand — with a lack of consensus on any contemporary definition — is counter-productive to assessing and addressing the complexities of voting behavior in Indonesia.
There are numerous reasons why Indonesians do not vote and are voting in declining numbers. There are willing voters who are excluded due to administrative problems, such as exclusion from the voter register, or due to the failure to accommodate specific voting populations — as has happened on occasion in prisons and hospitals. There are those who want to vote, but who cannot afford a day not working, are working or studying far from home, are ill, or whose place of study or employment does not grant them the time necessary to vote. There is voter suppression — fraudulent means that decrease turnout (often, it is alleged in Indonesia, through partisan manipulation of the voter register). There is simple apathy. There are those who make use of their right to abstain due to disenchantment with the choices available. There is the impact of severe weather on election day. And at the fringe, there are those, such as Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, that abstain — and call this Golput — to protest the system, spinning Golput 180 degrees from a protest for democracy to a protest against democracy.
Invalid ballots now tend to fall into two categories: unintentionally invalidated ballots, resulting from voter confusion when faced by complex forms, and intentionally invalidated ballots, most often by the odd joker who plays for a laugh.
Ballots are counted transparently at polling stations, and ballots with written messages on them or — as I witnessed last year in Jakarta — with all of the candidates’ heads neatly cut out, are often fodder for amusement come counting time.
None of the examples above embody Golput, with its roots in protest and non-participation in elections that are neither free nor fair. While numerous recent surveys and corruption cases involving elected officials suggest that voters have every reason to question political party performance, protest through non-participation in the age of party Twitter accounts and Indonesia’s own branch of change.org seems like a cop-out.
The only suitable heir to Golput today is the voter who, when strong-armed to vote for a particular party and candidate and who believes his or her participation in voting is monitored, will intentionally invalidate the ballot.
Golput has a distinguished place in Indonesia’s reform movement. However, a more nuanced examination of — and lexicon for — voter behavior would be more appropriate for addressing declining voter turnout and in defining appropriate administrative, information and education responses in time for positive impact before the 2014 elections.
Andrew Thornley is a program director at The Asia Foundation, Indonesia. The views here are expressed in a personal capacity. He can be contacted at email@example.com.