Vote buying mars election results

MAY 4 — The race for parliamentary seats in Indonesia did not end after the voting booths were closed last month. In fact, it was just the beginning, thanks to an allegedly porous vote counting system.

In the past three weeks following the April 9 election, parties and legislative candidates have complained about various irregularities that resulted in shrunken votes in the multiple levels of vote counting. Some legislative candidates likened the collusion and corruption that allegedly took place during the vote counts to robberies which denied their parties seats in parliament.

To ensure validity, vote counting takes place on several levels, beginning at the voting stations at village level on the day of the election. From there, the results, sealed in legally binding reports and signed by witnesses from the participating parties, are sent to the election committee at the sub-district level. After a few days, another report will be sent to the election committee at the district level, followed by the provincial level. Finally, the official national results will be announced by the General Elections Committee (KPU) on May 7-9.

Siti Nurbaya of the National Democratic (Nasdem) Party told me she had seen votes for her party shrink in her constituency in Lampung in the last two weeks.

“In the first two weeks after April 9, we were doing fine. All the counts that we monitored from the ballot stations showed that we were in third position,” Nurbaya, a former high-ranking bureaucrat-turned politician, said.
After April 22, however, the district election committee’s finding showed that her party’s rank had slipped down to number 10, the bottom of the list.

“Based on our count, we should at least get 140,000 votes in total, but right now we have 107,000 votes. In one sub-district, for example, we knew that we got 6,200 votes, but when it was recapitulated at the district level, our votes were down to 4,200. This means at least 2,000 votes had been shifted to another party,” she said.

My conversations with other politicians in other parties have shown that vote count manipulation is a problem that is happening throughout Indonesia.

And sometimes it involves the party’s own candidates at provincial and district legislatures who collude with candidates from other parties by selling their “unused votes.”

Confused? Here’s how it works: Suppose district legislature Candidate X from Party A got 7,000 votes in his district. He only needs to win 4,000 votes to secure a seat in the district legislature, so he sells the remaining 3,000 votes to the highest bidder, maybe Candidate Y from Party B. This means he still wins his seat, but he gets to earn some money to pay back those high campaign expenses. The two colluding politicians pay the election committee officials to doctor the reports, and, voila, everyone wins.

Or do they? In fact, by selling his unused votes, Candidate A undermines his own party’s chance of putting their cadres in the national parliament. This fundamental issue of transactional politics over party loyalty is a problem that will have to be addressed by political parties once the hustle and bustle of election is over.

The Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) has observed an increase in vote count manipulation this year, though most of the transactions they detected were among legislative candidates from the same party, largely because of the nature of the electoral system.

Since 2009, Indonesia has instituted an open-list system in which individuals who win the most votes in his own party can secure the legislative seats. It replaced the previous closed-list system, in which voters vote for parties, which would then distribute the votes to the candidates according to their rank in the party list.

“Since 2009, the system rewards candidates with the most votes, so this encourages competition within the party,” said Very Junaidi, Deputy Director for Perludem.

Leading contenders conspire with election officials to buy votes from those who are not likely to win enough votes. Another mode of vote shifting within a party involves a candidate buying votes cast for parties, instead of candidates.

The choice of who wins what seat does not end when the polling ends... the real shenanigans happen during the vote counting. — Picture by Reuters
The choice of who wins what seat does not end when the polling ends... the real shenanigans happen during the vote counting. — Picture by Reuters

“This type of transaction occurs between candidates of the same party, so it doesn’t affect the election results of other parties,” he said. The vote counting manipulation could take place at the ballot station, the sub-district election committee, or the district election committee levels.

“Though this may seem like a win-win situation, it is bad for democracy and must be rooted out,” Very said.

It definitely raises doubts over the validity of the election results. Already, vote counting activities at some districts and cities have led to shouting matches and stalemates, with political party representatives calling the results invalid.

Disputing parties can either complain to the election monitoring body, or bring the case to the Constitutional Court later. After the 2009 election, the Constitutional Court heard over 600 election disputes. 

Many politicians and scholars have called for another change to the election system to make it less vulnerable to collusion. But Very said any change would not be effective without an overhaul to the whole system. This includes improving the law enforcement, putting in place a better election monitoring system, and recruiting better and incorruptible committee officials.

Seeing how much money is being circulated right now in the vote-buying business, I fear that the latter might be the hardest to achieve.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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