With the election over, the Indonesian government grapples with painful lessons

Photo Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs/Flickr

As the dust settles on the world’s largest single-day election, Indonesia should take note of the logistical failures that led to more than 300 deaths.


On April 17, 2019, Indonesia held the largest direct, single-day presidential vote on the planet (the US uses an electoral college and India holds rolling elections). It was also among the most complicated, with voters making selections for president, the Regional Representatives Council, People’s Representative Council, Provincial Legislative Council and District or City Legislative Councils.  

With more than 245,000 candidates running for over 20,000 seats, the election commission (KPU) employed more than seven million workers to man more than 800,000 polling stations.

Out of 193 million eligible voters, 81% went to the polls. This was the highest turnout for the country since the direct presidential election was first introduced in 2004.

However, thousands of polling stations are expected to hold a revote due to technical glitches. According to KPU commissioner, Ilham Saputra, “most of the revotes are because they [polling station officers] let voters from outside their electoral district, who were ineligible to be listed on the special voter list, cast their votes.”

KPU chairman, Arief Budiman said there have been 2,700 revote requests affecting 0.3% of the total 813,350 polling stations. So far 1,511 have been processed.

 Ballot boxes used for Indonesia’s 17 April 2019 elections. The five boxes are for votes for the president, both houses of the People’s Consultative Assembly and two levels of regional government.
Photo Credit: Davidelit/Wikimedia Commons

The election was a logistical nightmare

The estimated 155 million ballots are being transported to Jakarta from polling stations around the country. The scale of the election and the remote locations of many of the polling stations have taken their toll on polling station workers and couriers.

A reported 300 polling station workers and couriers have lost their lives due to exhaustion and a further 2,000 reportedly fell ill after the election. Some volunteers and workers spent over 30 continuous hours checking ballots and counting papers.

Critics quickly blamed the government for holding the presidential and general elections on the same day. According to Bambang Soesatyo, speaker of the House of the Representative, the government’s decision was taken to cut costs.

The KPU reduced the minimum age of election officials from 25 to 17 and reduced the number of voters accommodated for in a single polling station in an attempt to alleviate the workload on officials. However, these measures were not sufficient to keep workers safe. 

The single-day elections also confused voters. Many voters had little knowledge of candidates besides those running for president, leading to the legislative races not receiving the attention they perhaps deserved.

The failures have fueled further polarization

After a seven-month-long election campaign, the public expected the election to heal divisions and provide closure. However, the logistical difficulties that have marred the election are preventing a restoration of order.

The technical errors in the process and the delay in counting the result of the election have led both contenders to claim victory, stirring up tension.

The preliminary election results have the incumbent, Joko Widodo leading by a slim margin. KPU’s current real count puts Joko Widodo and his running mate, cleric Ma’ruf Amin at 56.33% and Prabowo Subianto at 43.67%. The KPU will announce the official result on May 22, 2019.

Prabowo’s campaign team has accused KPU of rigging the election to deny him victory. The country’s legal and security affairs minister, Wiranto called the accusation “slanderous, false, and baseless.”

According to Prabowo’s internal survey team, Prabowo won the race by as much as 64%. His team has also repeatedly said they would bring the election case to the constitutional court, as it did in 2014 presidential race. 

Prabowo Subianto
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indonesia should run its presidential and legislative elections separately

Indonesia will likely learn from its mistakes and avoid holding presidential and legislative elections on the same day in the future. Jusuf Kalla, the current vice president, has urged stakeholders to evaluate and review the election process.

KPU’s commissioner, Pramono Ubaid Tantowi, also said “our simultaneous election is the first and will be the last.”

Separating presidential and general elections would give the population time to get to know the candidates better and strengthen Indonesian democracy. It would have allowed legislative elections to be given more attention and coverage instead of being treated as an extension of the presidential race.

The country would benefit from a re-evaluation of the nation’s election laws to remove the need for simultaneous presidential and legislative elections.  

There are causes for celebration. The 81% turnout was cause for celebration and demonstrated the strength of Indonesian democracy. Several world leaders have praised Indonesia for holding such a monumental election in a peaceful manner.

However, the country should hold itself to a higher standard. The high death toll among polling workers shows that there was something fundamentally wrong with this year’s election. The government must learn from it, reform the country’s election laws, and strive to provide elections that are not only peaceful but also efficient and safe for voters and workers alike.