Indonesia’s General Election Commission, which organizes the country’s elections, has come under attack by a flood of false news and hoaxes apparently aimed at delegitimizing its role as a neutral arbiter in the upcoming general election.
The agency is scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections simultaneously on April 17, with more than 190 million voters expected at 800,000-odd polling stations across the country. The presidential election is a rematch from 2014 between the incumbent, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, paired with fundamentalist Islamist Ma'ruf Amin, and former general Prabowo Subianto, whose running mate is wealthy businessman Sandiaga Uno.
Jokowi and Ma’ruf have been running 20 to 30 points ahead, according to credible survey institutions that have consistently shown Prabowo and Sandiaga have made little headway in seeking to close the gap. A recent survey by the Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) put Jokowi in the lead 58.7 percent compared to 30.9 percent. About 9.9 percent voters have not made a choice.
Because Prabowo is running so far behind, suspicions have fallen on his supporters in the attempt to delegitimize the election commission. A doctored video circulating on social media and chat applications in early March depicted a commotion in a commission office in Medan in North Sumatra, accompanied by a narrative that officers were casting ballots for Jokowi and were caught by Prabowo’s, causing chaos.
The six-minute video was apparently taken at a commission office in North Tapanuli on June 28, 2018, and related to alleged fraud in a North Sumatra regent election. It had nothing to do with the current presidential election. Police are now seeking the video distributors.
In January, the commission was also attacked by allegations that seven containers from China filled with ballots had been discovered as already cast for Jokowi. Besides being rumored to be a member of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), Jokowi is also often whispered to be too loose towards Chinese investment.
Bagus Bawana Putra, believed to be behind some of the hoaxes, was arrested and will soon undergo trial. Bagus claimed to be the leader of the National Volunteer Coalition (Kornas) for Prabowo, but the Prabowo campaign team said Kornas wasn’t registered as its volunteer group.
The police also handled two other hoaxes involving Prabowo’s sympathizers. In the first, an activist and member of Prabowo's campaign team, Ratna Sarumpaet, claimed she had received bruises from three men connected with the Jokowi team although the bruises actually were the result of plastic surgery. In the second, three members of a pro-Prabowo volunteer group, Mothers Defend Prabowo-Sandi Party (PEPES), spread the rumor that Jokowi’s leadership would be detrimental towards Muslims.
The election commission has also been attacked on allegations of 25 million double voters, that ballot boxes are made of easily breached cardboard and that foreign nationals have been mobilized to vote.
The massive spread of hoaxes has become a challenge for elections. A survey by the Indonesian Telematics Society (Mastel) in 2018 stated that 44.3 percent of the 1,116 respondents surveyed claimed to receive news of hoaxes every day, dominated dominated by political issues, followed by misstatements about religion and health.
The director of the Indonesian Public Institute (IPI), Karyono Wibowo, said he suspects the election commission hoaxes are structured and that systematic fraud is designed to help one of the presidential candidates. "The latest (issue) is the suspicion that a vote counting information system will be used to commit fraud. In this case, the election commission is the accused,” he said, “as if there was a conspiracy between the [commission] and one of the pairs of presidential candidates."
The commission chairperson Arief Budiman said he guarantees that his institution remains independent, though he suspects that the hoaxes were intended to delegitimize it. "Maybe they want to give input and notes to the KPU. But if that (note) is not based on data and facts, then it can be sure that they want to disrupt our elections, delegitimize the election organizers, and therefore must be opposed."
Apart from being attacked by hoax issues, the commission has been under various political pressures from Prabowo's camp. The Deputy Chairperson of the House of Representatives and Prabowo’s ally Fahri Hamzah accused the commission of administrative errors, claiming there was invalid voter data on 15 million voters but that the commission would prepare ballots for them anyway. The commission denied Fahri's allegations but promised to discuss the issue with the presidential candidate camps.
Fahri charged that the 15 million invalid voters were foreigners, the mentally ill and the dead.
"The mode of deception is (there will be) voting for invalid ballots at the polling station," Fahri said as quoted by detik.com."So, who will vote for the 15 million ballots? the [commission] must answer," Fahri said.
On March 1, a group of people initiated by the hardliner group Islamic Community Forum (FUI) took to the streets to warn the KPU against cheating. The demonstration was attended by the chairman of the steering committee of the Prabowo campaign team, Amien Rais, and FUI Secretary General Muhammad Al Khathath.
Both are members of an organization known as 212 Alumni, which held raucous demonstrations in 2017 that led to fabricated charges against former Jakarta governor and Jokowi’s ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who lost the governorship and was later jailed for blasphemy.
Amien demanded that the commission conduct a forensic audit of its information technology system to guarantee the absence of fraud. He said he would reappear in early April to ensure the agency carried out his demands. "If they don't do it, then they really intend to cheat," he said.
The chairperson of the research and advocacy group SETARA Institute, Hendardi said that the demonstration by Amien and the FUI is normal. But at the same time, he said, Amien was attempting to intimidate the institutions.
"FUI and Amien Rais are political organizations and individuals who at the 2019 Election are affiliated with Prabowo's camp. So Amien's strong statements must be seen as a form of political intimidation aimed at building public opinion to weaken the commission, "Hendardi said. "And simultaneously, giving electoral incentives to Prabowo as if he was tyrannized by the regime, rigged and so on."
The Secretary of Jokowi’s Campaign team, Hasto Kristiyanto said he suspected Prabowo's camp was attempting to construct a narrative about structured and systematic fraud because the campaign is growing concerned that they can’t pick up electoral steam.
Prabowo is supported by a coalition of four parties consisting of his own Gerindra, the Democrats, headed by former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, PAN, and PKS. Jokowi is supported by nine parties including his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, as well as PKB, Perindo, NasDem, Hanura, PKPI, PSI, and PPP.
Jokowi also has the support of Golkar, once the strongest party in the New Order era of the late strongman Suharto. The party, which once occupied the first or second position in legislative elections is slowly slipping into irrelevance. A survey late last year showed that Golkar is predicted to take only 11.3 percent of the vote, behind the PDIP and Gerindra. A large number of Golkar cadres have been identified with corruption. The party has a weak leader and has fielded no presidential or vice-presidential candidates. Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party has also fallen on relatively hard times and the former president is showing little sign of being strongly behind Prabowo.