There Will be Bigger Risks if the Elections Are Delayed
Arief Budiman, Chairman, General Elections Commission
AS soon as he was confirmed negative for Covid-19 on October 26, General Elections Commission (KPU) Chairman Arief Budiman returned to work immediately and step on the gas. Arief was hospitalized last September after being tested positive for SARS-CoVC-2 infection albeit showing no clinical symptoms and forced to stay away from his office for 35 days.
His swab tests taken during the hospitalization consistently came back positive. On the 20th day, he asked to continue his treatment at his official residence. To everyone’s relief, the test taken on the 11th day of home care came back negative. “It’s really true you are more relaxed at home. Your family is your primary medication,” Arief, 46, said during a special interview with Tempo in his central Jakarta office last Tuesday, October 27.
Soon after return to work, Arief led a meeting to discuss the recapitulation information system (Sirekap) that the KPU has prepared for the simultaneous regional head elections. Collaborating with a team from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), the KPU has been fine-tuning the system that reads and converts data on the C-1 vote count form into electronic data. Arief was confident the new technology would help expedite the vote recapitulation process.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia will be holding the simultaneous regional elections in 270 regions on December 9. As of last week, the Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) has found 306 health protocol violations in over 13,000 face-to-face campaigns across the country. In spite of heavy criticism and fears from numerous sides over potential new Covid-19 clusters that could result from the elections, the KPU confirmed that the elections would proceed according to the schedule. “We cannot delay the elections any longer. Too much energy has been spent,” he insisted.
Arief explained to Tempo reporters Wahyu Dhyatmika and Mahardika Satria Hadi election-related matters from the tug-of-war over the delay to the issue of Sirekap. The interview was complemented with answers from KPU Commissioner Ilham Saputra who was questioned separately by Mahardika, Nur Alfiyah, and Abdul Manan via video on October 13. Ilham was the acting KPU chair during Arief’s absence.
Many regional election candidates are still holding face-to-face campaigns. What has the KPU done to prevent new Covid-19 clusters?
A lot, particularly relating to regulations. KPU Regulation No. 10/2020 has a clause on campaigns whereby face-to-face campaigns are allowed only when online campaigns are not feasible. They must obtain permit for a face-to-face campaign, limit the number of attendees, and strictly observe the health protocols. Modes of campaign, be it general meeting, limited meeting, or public debate must be organized according to regulations. In the past, supporters can march in procession in public debates, but not for this time.
Several candidates have died from coronavirus and health protocol violations during campaigns have resulted in hundreds of new Covid-19 cases in the regions. Doesn’t this show that this is not yet an opportune time to hold the elections?
Arief: We certainly need support and compliance from many sides to successfully implement the regulations. Regional KPUs must enforce the warning and sanction mechanisms for violations. For administrative violations, they should take action after the Bawaslu has processed the cases. If there are criminal elements, cases should be handed over to the law enforcement authorities after the Bawaslu has processed them.
Ilham: Actually, we can follow the Covid-19 protocols that have already been stipulated in KPU Regulation No. 13/2020 which supersedes KPU Regulations No. 6 and 10/2020. We prohibit campaigns that can potentially draw large crowds such as (music) concerts, bazaars and general meetings, and encourage online campaigns as a primary mode of campaign while allowing face-to-face meetings with maximum attendance of 50 people including the campaign team. We issued this new KPU regulation after a lot of criticisms following the campaign parades on September 4 to 6. Bawaslu also found 234 violations in the candidate registration process.
Who are responsible to oversee the implementation of the rules stipulated in the said regulation?
Ilham: The Bawaslu. The Bawaslu has monitoring officials.
Why does the KPU still allow face-to-face campaigns?
Ilham: Not all the regions have the Internet access or are familiar with Zoom, Google Meet, or other social media applications. That’s why we still allow face-to-face campaign for maximum 50 people, and of course under the strict Covid protocols.
How does the KPU dissuade the candidates from holding face-to-face campaigns?
We involved them in the campaign regulation formulation process. Drafting the regulation involved many sides including election participants. That’s why sometimes I really get irritated if some participants question the regulation. How come? They were there when it was put together.
Didn’t the numerous violations of the health protocols during face-to-face campaigns prove that participants are not complying with KPU’s rules?
I suspect both the candidates and their constituents play a factor in it. Perhaps culture also plays a role. In certain regions, not many people know online platforms or how to use them. It’s also possible that some local communities don’t follow the health protocols yet. In their mind, campaigns are still done that way (face-to-face). That’s why it takes the participation of all sides. One can’t rely on the KPU alone for everything.
How did the tug-of-war discussion go until it was finally decided that elections would proceed as scheduled on December 9 at the height of the pandemic?
When the first coronavirus case emerged in Indonesia on March 2, I only instructed all KPU employees to be careful at work, that they must follow the health protocol. But a few days later the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) declared a state of emergency till May. So the KPU decided that the ongoing four election stages should also be put on hold for three months. Some criticized us when we announced the delay and asked why they were not informed.
Why was the KPU criticized for delaying the elections since it was due to the pandemic?
Arief: The law wasn’t revised yet that time. The KPU as the holder of the ultimate responsibility was given the authority to decide delays. Only afterwards, the government regulation in lieu of the law (Perpu No. 2/2020) was issued stipulating that the decision to delay or proceed must be jointly made between the KPU, government, and House of Representatives (DPR).
Ilham: That time we were still staggered by the pandemic that just struck the country. We were supposed to conduct two phases—to verify support for individual candidate and to update voter data—where we had to interact directly with the public. Our officials must go door to door to verify the data. Not knowing how things were, we decided to postpone the elections and the government and DPR also agreed. The government later asked the KPU to propose options for the new date.
What options did the KPU propose?
We gave three options: December 2020, March 2021 and September 2021. The KPU had discussed it with the home affairs ministry and DPR’s Commission II (for home affairs, state secretariat, and general elections) in May.
Why was December 2020 chosen?
We delayed the four phases for only three months. If we want to go ahead, well, we only need three months to adjust. That’s why the elections initially scheduled for September was put off until December.
With the pandemic that was just beginning to unfold at the time, why was the earliest date chosen?
There were only few cases at the time and we were still relaxed. The KPU already said that if they preferred to have sufficient space and time, and focus on the pandemic management, the option should be September next year. Then we asked for expert opinions including that of the BNPB when the pandemic would end and whether we could continue with the elections.
What were their responses?
Not a single side could predict when the pandemic would end. The conditions set by the KPU may not be met either. For instance, if we choose December, the pandemic must end in May. If it’s March (2021), it should be over in August (2020). If it’s September 2021, it should end in February or March 2021. Nobody could say for sure. We were not certain for all the dates so we chose December 9.
Is it true that the government had already chosen this option from the start?
I can’t say for sure. As far as I remember, a lot of sides offered opinions. The bottom line is that December was chosen ultimately. Then each side presented argument.
Didn’t you consider the possibility that the pandemic might linger on for long?
Actually, we considered all the views. We feared the pandemic might take a turn for the worse. That’s why the KPU held several meetings and webinars with both regional KPUs and experts. Experts shared the same view that there was no way of knowing when the pandemic would fade away. But before we had a meeting with the government and DPR, the BNPB replied to our letter and that letter was the key (to the decision). The BNPB explained that first, no one knew for sure when the coronavirus would go away, and secondly, we may go ahead with the elections provided that we use personal protective equipment (PPE) and implement health protocols.
KPU Chairman Arief Budiman (right) and Commissioner Ilham Saputra at the KPU office, Jakarta, last September. ANTARA/Reno Esnir
Many questioned the urgency to still hold the elections this year and advised postponement. What’s your response?
We cannot postpone the elections any longer. So much energy has been spent. We’ve issued the regulation. If the date is changed, the regulation must also change, again. It’s a long process and take so much energy to revise the KPU regulation. A lot of budget has also been spent as each phase has an impact on the budget. Then the time and the energy of everyone involved. There will be bigger risks and more energy will be needed if we postpone it again.
Given the number of Covid positive cases that continues to rise in many regions, does the KPU still consider the situation to be conducive to going ahead with the regional elections?
We need to understand that the decision was made in May when the condition was already like that. No one could estimate when the vaccines would be available or what the Covid curve would look like. Some predicted that the pandemic in Indonesia would peak in July-August after which it would decline. It turns out the condition remains the same. We have to look at the context at the time the decision was taken.
What has the KPU prepared to mitigate the risks of infection from the preparation phase until the D-day?
Ilham: In a hearing with DPR’s Commission II, we informed that the regional elections could be held in December but due to the ongoing pandemic, we asked for additional budget to purchase PPE for our officials in the regions from the local poll stations up to the provincial level.
Arief: The finance ministry said at the time that we can use the regional budget. They would only provide fund if the regional budget couldn’t. I said the regional budget was a done deal and it would take a long time (to change), even more so if there were politics involved. So, if the regional elections were to still take place in December, the budget must come from the state budget. The government and DPR finally agreed.
How much did the KPU propose?
Initially Rp4.7 trillion but only Rp3.7 trillion was realized. It’s a total budget.
Why did the budget decrease?
First, the KPU cut costs from the price change for rapid test kits. The price of rapid test kit initially cost Rp300,000-350,000. After the government set the price at Rp150,000, we revised the budget.
As regards vote recapitulation, how far will Sirekap help expedite the process?
We target to use the Sirekap for the 2024 general elections. That’s why preparation is a long process. We’ve run several simulations in the region. We will use the momentum from the regional elections to implement the Sirekap earlier. That’s why we’re hurrying up. The KPU regulation is being drafted and since it’s about election phases, it has to be done in consultation with the government and the DPR.
What sets Sirekap apart from the previous system used in the 2019 general elections?
The Sirekap uses the capture system, not the data input system. Polling station committees (KPPS) only need to take the picture of the pleno paper with the mobile phone and then send the photos to the KPU’s data tabulation center. Anyone else can also take photos of the pleno paper. With the OMR (optical mark recognition) and OCR (optical character recognition) technologies, the system can directly total the vote recapitulation results. This is extraordinary and will change the fundamental elements in our electoral system. Voting and counting will still be done manually but recapitulation will be done electronically. The public do not need to worry too much. General election participants can also get copies of the data without having to assign witnesses.
What are the advantages?
It saves time and cost. It also eliminates the need for so many forms as well as the recapitulation costs in districts and regencies. We are optimistic that this system is viable. Even the Situng (vote counting information system) managed to successfully input 98.8 percent of the data in the 2019 elections. It means a lot of regions managed to upload 100 percent data although much more work was involved. The KPPS must transfer and input data from the C-1 form one by one.
How much time will Sirekap save?
On average, it takes seven days to get the results from regent and mayoral elections and 12 days from gubernatorial elections. With the Sirekap, they will be shortened to one to two days.
Is Sirekap safer than the previous systems?
The server is here and being audited by a competent local auditor. Can you name a system that cannot be hacked nowadays? All have the potentials to be hacked. From our experience with Situng and Sidalih (voter data system), no one could hack into our data center. Let’s assume the server is a house. They could open the gate and get in the yard but couldn’t enter the house because they were detected. I’m amazed at the allegations during the 2019 elections that the server was kept abroad. I’ve invited everyone—from political parties, DPR to election participants—to come here. I’ll show them where our server is.
The unequal Internet access in Indonesia has often become a hurdle to this kind of information technology. What about with Sirekap?
It’s true not all the regions in Indonesia have Internet networks. We also have a few polling booths in the middle of the jungles. But the ITB team has already gave a solution. The KPPS can first take pictures of the form and send the photos via Bluetooth to the electoral officials in the district or the regency. Then the latter will forward the photos to our data tabulation center.
ARIEF BUDIMAN | Place and Date of Birth: Surabaya, March 2, 1974 | Education: Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, University of 17 Agustus 1945 Surabaya (2000), Bachelor’s in International Relations, Airlangga University (2002), Master of Economics, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta (2010) | Career: Research, Jawa Pos Institute of Pro-Otonomi (2002-2004), International Observer at Taiwan Legislative Election, Asian Network for Free Elections (2004), Member, Provincial General Election Commission, East Java (2004-2012), Commissioner, General Election Commission (2012-2017), Chair, General Election Commission (2017-2022)