Oct 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:24 AM, Sep 13, 2023

Watching the vote

140,000 progressive Muslim volunteers monitored Indonesia’s April elections

Ahmad Suaedy

Since the fall of the New Order, the role of progressive Muslim Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in supporting democratisation in Indonesia has become more prominent. In the two elections that have been held since the regime collapsed, these NGOs have conducted voter education and poll monitoring. Their involvement is an attempt to ensure these elections are conducted in a fair and just manner. Such activities were almost impossible during the New Order.


Progressive Muslim NGOs emerged in the late 1970s. One of the first was the Social and Economic Research, Education and Information Institute (Lembaga Penelitian Pendidikan dan Penerangan Ekonomi dan Sosial, LP3ES), a large NGO established at the beginning of the New Order. Although it did not directly oppose the New Order, LP3ES had a significant influence on the orientation of criticism of it.

Throughout the New Order progressive Muslim NGOs modified their programs to suit the challenges of the day. They usually consisted of young Muslim activists seeking to empower civil society outside existing vehicles such as political parties, mass organisations and formal educational institutions.

Towards the end of the New Order, when the regime became extremely repressive, these NGOs occupied themselves with critiques of religious doctrine and texts. This was designed to open the way for religious figures and activists to be more responsive to social change and to the needs and demands of society. Fear of repression meant that most activists and leaders avoided openly criticising or confronting the New Order. Instead, they focused on ‘underground’ work such as disseminating ideas through workshops and closed discussions on topics such as democracy, human rights, women’s rights and oppression of the urban and rural poor.

When the New Order collapsed, these NGOs had available to them vast critical and intellectual human resources involved in various social issues. In the absence of repression, they emerged as a force able to influence the process of change in Indonesia.

Most NGO activists and leaders are not interested in direct involvement in political parties. Nor, generally speaking, are their progressive and critical concepts accommodated in the mass-based Islamic organisations, such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). This is despite the strong cultural and personal links that NGO leaders and activists have with these two organisations and the fact that many are former leaders of student and youth organisations affiliated with Muhammadiyah and NU.

Instead, they work on political and legal issues, such as human rights, critiques of central and local legal regulations, and scrutiny of national and regional parliaments. They also work on issues such as corruption, land seizures, empowerment of farmers and labourers and reconciliation with victims of the New Order, in particular those who were accused of involvement in the Indonesian Communist Party.

The 1999 election

The Voter Education Network for the People (Jaringan Pendidikan Pemilih untuk Rakyat, JPPR) is a network of Muslim NGOs that was born out of a hope for popular democracy through close monitoring of the 1999 election. JPPR initially consisted of 11 NGOs, some affiliated with NU and others with Muhammadiyah, which came together to conduct civic education and poll monitoring. Under the New Order, elections were rife with manipulation and intimidation. The 1999 election, the first test of election reforms put in place after the fall of Suharto, was relatively free and fair. Voter participation was high, reaching almost 90 per cent.

The 1999 coordinator of JPPR, Lilis Husna, explained, ‘That was our first experience, an attempt to build a network to push concrete democratisation through the involvement of NU and Muhammadiyah youth.’

The network then involved 123,000 volunteers who observed the election process at each polling station for the 130 million voters in the 1999 election.

We weren’t able to monitor 100 per cent of polling stations, but they (the volunteers) were spread through all provinces except East Timor and were in 100 per cent of regencies and almost 95 per cent of villages throughout Indonesia,’ Lilis said.

2004 election

The April 2004 parliamentary elections were far more complicated than any previous election. In previous elections voters only had to choose a party. But in the 2004 election they had to make three choices at the polling booth: preferred party, preferrez candidates for the central provincial and regency parliaments, and a candidate for the Regional Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, DPD). DPD members represent their region in the central parliament. This model was entirely new to Indonesian voters, making voter education and supervision extremely important.

By the 2004 election on 5 April, JPPR had grown into a network of 30 organisations and NGOs. Most of the NGOs and mass organisations were affiliated with Muhammadiyah and NU. Non-Muslim organisations were also involved in areas where Muslims are not a majority. The network involved 145,474 people, consisting of 141,000 volunteers as well as national, provincial, regency and district coordinators. The network conducted poll monitoring in all of Indonesia’s provinces as well as each of its 438 regencies.

This time, the network monitored about 30 per cent of Indonesia’s 50,500 polling stations.

Preliminary findings

The coalition of progressive NU and Muhammadiyah groups in JPPR produced its own dynamism. The network was able to manage itself well when misunderstandings and suspicion arose between the members of each organisation. The involvement of non-Muslim progressive groups in JPPR was also very beneficial in helping the network guard against poll-related violence.

The extent of its reach and the even spread of its volunteers at 10,000 polling stations throughout Indonesia enabled JPPR to issue a quick assessment of the fairness of the 5 April election. Rizal Kurniawan, from the JPPR National Secretariat, stated thlt in terms of what happened at polling stations, the election this time was safer and fairer than in 1999.

The main obstacle, he continued, was the late and chaotic delivery of materials by the Electoral Commission (Komisi Pemilihan Umumý KPU). At some polling stations ballot papers as well as other forms required by witnesses and electoral committee members were delivered late. Ballot cards were also frequently sent to the wrong area, causing further difficulties. At several polling stations electoral committee members did not understand the correct procedure for voting, counting and recording the result. This meant that JPPR volunteers often had to intervene to help explain the procedure for voting and for tallying the votes.

‘It should have been the KPU’s job to provide officials with training, long before the election,’ said Gunawan, the JPPR national coordinator.

Since the election, JPPR has continued to provide reports on election developments. One of JPPR’s main concerns is that the tallying of votes from each polling station at district level, particularly outside Java, is still open to manipulation. According to JPPR, in those areas the larger parties, in particular Golkar, PDI-P and PPP, often resort to money politics, and tactics such as marking ballot papers before the election and inflating the number of votes on the tally paper. The ‘support’ of district level election committees is often essential in such manipulations.

‘Although it was safe at polling stations and there were no significant obstacles or threats of violence, violence was still in the shadows. It could occur after the election, if certain groups aren’t willing to accept defeat,’ added Rizal.

Beyond the polling stations the major concern appears to be that electoral committees and party board members from some parties might misuse their positions to distort the count.

Ahmad Suaedy (suaedy@gusdur.net) is a staff researcher in Jakarta for the Centre for Citizenship and Human Rights, Faculty of Arts, Deakin University, and director of the Wahid Institute in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 79: Jul - Sep 2004

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