Dying for Democracy? Over 500 election workers die during Indonesia election

Cover photo: Indonesian election voting. Photograph: Josh Estey/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Alexandra Smith is a Third Year Law and Asian studies student at the Australian National University, currently on exchange in South Korea.

Over 500 election workers have died and 2,000 more have suffered from fatigue-related illnesses following this year’s Indonesian general election on 17 April. The election, described as the world’s most complicated single-day election, has raised questions about the Indonesian government’s decision to hold simultaneous presidential and legislative elections. The General Elections Commission (KPU) has also drawn backlash for blaming workers for “neglecting their own physical health”, highlighting the unrealistic expectations placed on election workers in Southeast Asia’s largest democracy.

The Indonesian electorate involves more than 192 million eligible voters spread over nearly 18,000 islands and three different time zones. The election entails logistical and physical challenges to the 7 million workers who monitor, transport and count the ballot papers. The decision to run simultaneous elections, in an effort to save money and time, has only made their job more difficult. This year’s election also saw a record 80 per cent turnout, up from the 69 per cent presidential election turnout and 75 per cent legislative election turnout in 2014.

As of 7 May 554 poll workers and police officers had died, according to the KPU data. Yet the official statement, declaring the cause of the deaths as fatigue or exhaustion, is misleading. Many who died had pre-existing risk factors or conditions which made them more susceptible to illnesses. An Indonesian Health Ministry report describes 13 health conditions including heart attack, heart failure, stroke, respiratory failure and hypertension emergencies as causes of death. While fatigue is a triggering factor and can exacerbate existing conditions, in medical terms fatigue alone is not a sufficient cause of death.

Many of those who fell ill had worked non-stop for 24 hours or longer, therefore, fatigue and stress would have detrimental effects on their health. Under election law, the vote counting must be completed within the same day or can be extended for 12 hours, as long as vote-counting is continuous. Most workers would begin the day at 6 a.m. before polls opened and only ended their duties at around 10 a.m. the next day after transporting the ballots to a collection point. The lengthy working hours exceeded the normal biological limits and combined with the lack of prescribed breaks paint a picture of a lack of duty of care.

Election staff are also poorly paid, receiving around Rp 500,000 ($36 USD) for their work over the election period.

Since the news of the deaths attracted global attention the BBC News Reality Check team examined whether the number of deaths was actually higher than expected. Compared with the 144 deaths in the previous election in 2014 it would appear so. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) Indonesia data for death rate indicate that around 137 deaths out of the 7 million election workers would be expected daily. When applied to a four-day period, which would include the pre-election preparation, the poll day and the subsequent counting, around 548 deaths would be expected. Moreover, as most of the workers who died were aged over 50, a higher death rate could be anticipated. Jesse Hession Grayman, of the University of Auckland, argued that before accepting these figures “a detailed investigation of the demographic and health profiles of the election workers” is needed “to see whether the numbers fall within expected mortality rates”. There is now an ongoing investigation into general election management led by medical experts.

The KPU has created a compensation scheme for the families of workers who have died or suffered permanent disability, acknowledging that a large number were the primary earners in their household. Local news outlets have praised the workers as “heroes of democracy” and the hashtag #MartirDemokrasi (Martyrs of Democracy) has been used on social media to recognise those who died assisting the election process. While romanticizing these deaths may bring comfort to the families of victims, it arguably diminishes the responsibility of the KPU in election management and upholding a duty of care towards workers.

The sensationalist global reporting of the deaths of election workers can be tied to broader conspiracies and accusations of corruption and vote-rigging by the Prabowo Subianto camp. While the deaths may not be statistically unreasonable, it can be argued that the physical and emotional pressures on workers to ensure fair and free elections on such a large scale were. Following Joko Widodo’s victory on 17 April, Subianto has refused to accept the official result and has alleged widespread election fraud. Violent protests have claimed the lives of 8 people and injured hundreds. Despite the overall trend of democratic regression in Southeast Asia, the victory of Joko Widodo and the successful completion of an extremely complicated single-day election show that democracy in Indonesia is resilient. However, it is also a warning us of the potential for the polarisation of Indonesian society to generate misinformation, fuel dissent, and ultimately undermine faith in democracy.

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