More fun than voting
It is the day before Indonesia’s 2009 legislative election. As a student of Indonesian politics, weeks of intense campaigning have resulted in a degree of election fever on my part. With growing excitement, I ask around my kost (boarding house) to see how many of the girls intend to vote the following day. While answers vary from ‘going shopping’ to ‘visiting my boyfriend,’ one thing is sure; none of the 20 university students I live with are going to vote.
Though democracy is still new in Indonesia, I was perplexed by the seeming apathy of many university students regarding the electoral process. After all, Indonesian students a little over ten years ago were at the forefront of the movement that brought down the Suharto regime and allowed democracy to be established. The reasons why many students do not partake in the electoral process are not all to do with apathy, however. Some point to concerning aspects of the democractic process.
A fixed address
In Yogyakarta, a university city attracting thousands of students from across the archipelago, the most popular form of student accommodation is the kost, a residence housing anywhere from a few students to over one hundred. With students returning home for holidays or after graduation, this semi-permanent living arrangement is often at the root of why many students do not vote: they are legally prevented from doing so. New electoral regulations require a person to cast their vote at the polling booth nearest the address on their identity card. These regulations do not allow for semi-permanent living arrangements or take account of people who live away from their home address for extended periods. If they want to vote, students either have to return home – which for some can mean a journey of thousands of kilometres – or change their home address on their identity card. While returning home can present logistical and financial challenges, changing an address can be a bureaucratic nightmare. In order to register a new address, a student must lodge a request to be listed as a member of a local household. This means the owner of the kost where the student lives must be prepared to list the student on his or her own family card. More often than not, the kost owner rejects such applications, not wanting to be constantly changing the number and details of students on their card.
Bureaucracy versus a democratic right
While most students accept this fate and in effect give up their democratic right to vote, the student representative body, Badan Eksekutif Mahasiswa, at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, organised a ‘transfer program’ for the legislative election. This initiative allowed students originating from other areas to seek special permission from the electoral commission to vote in Yogyakarta. Even though only 1033 students took part in the program, the electoral commission granted permission to a mere 14. Again the problem was bureaucratic process. The electoral commission could not allow the remaining 1019 students to vote as local governments ran out of either time or resources to arrange the transfer of a simple letter.
Presented with either a long and complicated bureaucratic process or a trip home, perhaps to the other end of the archipelago, just to vote, it is little wonder Indonesian students are opting for the shopping mall on election day
With overly bureaucratic regulations denying students the vote, and indeed discouraging many others from even trying, the electoral process has failed to enable all citizens to take part in democracy. Presented with either a long and complicated bureaucratic process or a trip home, perhaps to the other end of the archipelago, just to vote, it is little wonder Indonesian students are opting for the shopping mall on election day. Yet despite these democratic failings in the electoral process, what seems particularly troubling for Indonesian democracy is the complacency with which students accept this fate.
Disillusioned but democratic
‘I’m going home tomorrow to vote,’ one of my friends mentioned over lunch. Surprised that I had finally encountered one of my university friends who actually intended to vote I quickly asked him what party would be voting for. ‘Oh, I’m voting for the white party,’ he replied, meaning he intended to leave his ballot paper blank, ‘My whole family must enter the polling booth to set an example because my father used to be the deputy head of the village.’
Disillusionment with the political process means that many students do not even want to vote
While electoral regulations present a bureaucratic obstacle to students who may want to vote, disillusionment with the political process means that many students do not even want to. Most of my student friends express a view that one vote cannot change the current disappointing political landscape, especially when there are no suitably inspiring candidates. Constant allegations of corruption and elitist politics within political parties help to undermine public confidence in the ability of the electoral process to create positive change for ordinary Indonesians.
It is certainly possible to see such political apathy as a sign of weakening support for the democratic model. Indeed, some students do lament the passing of the Suharto era. A more hopeful interpretation however, is of democratic values having truly taken a hold among the younger generation. By not taking part in a process they see as full of failings, students are demanding something more of their political system. ii
Benita Chudleigh (email@example.com) is a student from the Australian National University who is currently at UGM in Yogyakarta where she is participating in the ACICIS (Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies) program.