Open to manipulation: the 2014 elections in Papua province

10 Dec 2014


The new government of Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) could make a major contribution to better governance in Papua province by making an extra effort to actually count how many people live there and then to insist that all elections there be based on the one person, one vote system that applies in the rest of the country.

Papua is often portrayed as a place where too much control is exerted from Jakarta, but with respect to elections, it suffers from too little enforcement of national laws and standards. Elections in Papua are the worst-run in Indonesia; they have suffered from neglect by the central government and by under-resourced, poorly trained and corrupt local elections commissions.

In the July 2014 presidential election, as in the legislative elections three months earlier, large parts of Papua were denied the option of a secret ballot or in some cases, any ballot at all, in the name of respecting an allegedly traditional method of choosing leaders known as the noken system. The noken is a traditional string bag; noken voting refers to a variety of practices that often involve local leaders casting votes on behalf of entire communities. By handing local leaders this power and eliminating the secret ballot, it clearly has the potential to strengthen the power of a small elite. Defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto used the questionable results from Papua in his demand that the Constitutional Court overturn the entire presidential election. While the court rejected his appeal, the way Papua votes deserves closer scrutiny because it is a symptom of a much larger problem.

Reliance on the noken system, particularly in Papua’s central highlands, is itself a symptom of larger problems with electoral administration in Papua: there are no accurate census data or voter rolls there and population statistics have been steadily inflated over the last ten years to get access to various forms of spoils, including allocations from the central government. In some highland districts, the official count is believed to be three to five times the actual figure.

Many consequences flow from this inflation of the voter count: more money, more new districts, subdistricts and villages created, more power to highland politicians at the expense of their coastal counterparts, more public works projects for unscrupulous contractors, and more permits for resource extraction. If the one person, one vote principle were upheld, the whole house of cards could collapse.

Direct elections for local governors and district heads, introduced in 2005, increased the potential for fraud just by increasing the number of races in which the noken system could be used. The more that the noken system became the norm in the central highlands, and was legitimised by Indonesian courts, the lower the chance that anyone would question the voter rolls or population figures where it was used. Some Papuan politicians, with strong Jakarta backing, are now insisting that the 2001 Law on Special Autonomy mandates indirect elections of local executives by district and provincial legislatures.1 If their views prevail, the noken system will not be needed for these polls, though it will still be used for legislative and presidential elections.

But indirect elections, unlike genuine direct voting with no proxies allowed, offer no incentive to correct voter rolls and by extension improve population data. Unless and until Papuans are given the same electoral rights as other Indonesians, the noken system will remain a formidable obstacle to curbing corruption and improving governance.

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