Most election officials had to work through the night to complete the vote counting. (Antara Photo/Basri Marzuki)

'Martyrs' Pay the Ultimate Price for the World's Most Complex 'Party of Democracy'

APRIL 20, 2019

Jakarta. There are many reasons Indonesians call the country's quintennial elections "parties of democracy."

Voting day is a national holiday and hundreds of people from surrounding neighborhoods usually gather at polling stations to enjoy snacks or even full-course meals. Election officials often show up in fancy dress, ranging from traditional attire to Halloween and superhero costumes. Some polling stations are adorned with decorations worthy of a middle-class wedding, while retailers offer generous discounts to voters, tapping into their glowing sense of patriotism.

But for a few dedicated people, the election can literally mean death. 

Below the surface, the elections hide uncomfortable truths of punishing labor by millions of poorly paid part-time workers and security forces who break their backs to ensure that every vote is cast and accounted for.

This year's election added complexity and an additional burden on the more than 5.6 million people involved in ensuring that voting proceeded a smoothly and securely. About 193 million people were scheduled to vote in presidential, legislative and regional elections at more than 813,000 polling stations, making it the most complex single-day election in the world.  

For most of the workers, it was arguably the hardest task of their lives. Over a span of 24 hours, they had to be on full alert to set up and prepare voting booths, hold the election, count and recount thousands of ballots, and report the results accurately to the General Elections Commission (KPU).

They could not afford to rest, as the slightest deviation from regulations would land them in prison. They barely closed their eyes and sleeping was impossible. 

For some workers, the stress and fatigue were too much to handle. Their bodies gave up and they simply collapsed. A moment later they were gone.

The festive atmosphere at polling stations hides the underappreciated struggles of election officials. (Antara Photo/Umarul Faruq)
The festive atmosphere at polling stations hides the underappreciated struggles of election officials. (Antara Photo/Umarul Faruq)

Buried Under Controversies

Local news services and social media posters have been trying to share these heroic deeds with the public, whose attention is currently fixed on controversy after controversy, from conflicting victory claims to criticism of statistical methods. 

Twitter hashtags such as #MartirDemokrasi (martyr of democracy) and #Indonesiaelectionheroes share many heartbreaking stories of elections workers.

Among them is a 56-year-old man who died on Tuesday evening, apparently from exhaustion, after working non-stop from the previous night while in charge of election logistics at a warehouse in Bogor, West Java. Another man, who oversaw a polling station in Karawang, West Java, died in a motorcycle accident after counting votes all night.

The National Police said on Friday that it has lost 10 members, including a brigadier general, who died from exhaustion after escorting ballot boxes. 

In West Java, the province with the largest number of polling stations, 12 election workers reportedly died. And as reports from other regions are still coming in, the number of election workers who have died continues to rise. The number currently stands at more than 20 nationwide, most having died under similar circumstances.

Rifqi Alimubarok, chairman of the KPU in West Java, said he suspected that the long working hours have contributed to workers' exhaustion, which could prove fatal to someone with a pre-existing health condition. 

Officials worked on Tuesday evening to set up polling stations and receive ballots, which came in sealed boxes. The next day, they had to be ready at polling stations from 6:00 a.m. and since then, could not leave the premises before all votes were counted and recounted.

"Based on our monitoring in the field, all the counting finished at 5 a.m. [on Thursday]. Some even extended [counting] until noon," Rifqi said on Saturday, as quoted by Kompas.com. 

In some cases, election workers may travel up to three hours  on foot to reach polling stations, such as these pictured above, carrying ballot papers to a Baduy village in Banten. (Antara Photo/Muhammad Bagus Khoirunas)
In some cases, election workers may travel up to three hours  on foot to reach polling stations, such as these pictured above, carrying ballot papers to a Baduy village in Banten. (Antara Photo/Muhammad Bagus Khoirunas)

Low Pay, No Insurance

For all their troubles during those fateful 24 hours of uninterrupted work, election workers only received Rp 500,000 ($36) per person before tax. The state also excluded insurance coverage for workers in the Rp 25 trillion election budget it approved for this year.

"We have actually submitted a budget for death coverage, but it was not approved. So we cannot provide it," KPU chairman Arief Budiman told Sindonews.com on Thursday. 

Rifqi of the KPU said the provincial commission is working with the local government to provide compensation to the families of workers who have died, considering that the deceased were sole breadwinners. 

"We will pay attention to the election workers who died or fell ill. They are heroes of democracy," KPU commissioner Ilham Saputra said on Friday, as quoted by state-run news agency Antara.

Many also called on lawmakers to evaluate and change the current election system.

The Constitutional Court previously overturned a section of the 2008 Election Law, ruling that a legislative election preceding the presidential election was unconstitutional, as such an arrangement undermined Indonesia's presidential system and infringed on the people's right to elect legislative and executive members independent of each other. 

Former Constitutional Court judge Mahfud MD, who was not part of the 2013 ruling, said while the change is constitutional, in practice it begs the question of whether it is worth the cost in lives.

"Actually, the term 'simultaneous' does not require it to take place on the same day. It can take place on separate days. We need to discuss this again," Mahfud wrote on his Twitter account.

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