The number of people tested positive with COVID-19 has increased steeply soon after the country organized its General Elections in its Sabah state on Sept. 26. Two weeks had not even passed since the elections were organized and Malaysia has already recorded 691 new COVID-19 cases on Oct. 6. Out of the total people being tested positive with COVID-19, 219 among them live in the Sabah state.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yasin said that this happened because the implementation of the Malaysian Elections Commission’s standard operational procedure in anticipating the spread of COVID-19 during the elections cycle did not go according to plans. Yasin opined that there were more than just a few candidates who did not comply with health protocols, such maintaining the safe physical six-foot barriers from other people.
Many people have indicated that the general elections have also triggered the emergence of new cases in other states than Sabah. Many people actually believe that the rising number of COVID-19 cases found in the Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Trengganu states actually has something to do with the candidates from these states traveling to Sabah to conduct their political campaigns.
Malaysian Health Minister Noor Hisham Abdullah stated that since Sept. 20, the country had recorded 235 new COVID-19 positive cases associated with candidates who traveled to Sabah to conduct their political campaigns.
To prevent a second wave outbreak in Malaysia, the country’s government has already prohibited people to travel from Sabah to the Malaysian peninsula, Sarawak and the Labuan federal region. The new prohibition was announced on Oct. 12 and it applies until Oct. 25.
Besides Malaysia, a number of other Southeast Asian countries are also slated to organize their general elections near the end of this year. Among them are: Myanmar, which will conduct the elections on Nov. 8 and Indonesia on Dec. 9.
The elections cycle in both countries have entered the campaign period. Yet, more than just a few candidates in both countries have already violated the health protocols in place.
Indonesian Elections Supervisory Body (Bawaslu), for instance, has recorded 243 violations committed during the regional head candidate registration process. Meanwhile, during the campaign period, the Bawaslu found an additional 237 health protocols violations out of 9,189 campaign activities held across 59 regencies and cities in Indonesia.
Therefore, the Indonesian General Elections Commission (KPU) has decided to issue various new regulations to make elections-related health protocols stricter. For instance, the KPU asks candidates to prioritize online campaigns amid COVID-19.
KPU commissioner Viryan Azis said that candidates were still allowed to conduct face-to-face, live campaigns, but they have to restrict the number of participants to no more than 50 people. In addition to that, participants are also mandated to observe the one-meter physical distancing protocol.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to maximize online campaigns because most candidates are still trapped in the traditional campaigning mindset,” Viryan said in a discussion called Vulnerable Spots of the Regional Elections during the Pandemic on Oct. 8.
Regardless, KPU cannot completely rule out face-to-face campaign activities. The Law No. 10/2016 on Regional Leader Elections still allows face-to-face campaign activities. This is why, in the KPU Regulation No. 13/2020 on regional elections during the pandemic, the commission could only prohibit general meetings, arts and cultural shows, sports events, casual walks, competitions, social events as well as party anniversary celebration.
Out of the four voting simulations which have been done, the KPU has also highlighted the issue of voting booths overcrowding. Viryan said the commission was currently designing a regulation limiting the number of crowds allowed outside the booths. One method in which the KPU attempts to do that is by limiting the number of visitors to the voting booth.
“We will conduct a simulation in October 2020. A lot of people still don’t understand the technical adjustments that still need to be done from regulatory levels on down to logistical matters. The KPU will continue to take precautions to deal with potentially worsening situations,” Viryan said, while adding that his institution would not rule out possibilities to postpone the voting cycle in the red zones.
Meanwhile, Network for Integrous Democracy and Elections (Netgrit) researcher Hadar Nafiz Gumay viewed the KPU’s regulations were not strong enough yet to serve as the foundation of regulating the regional elections during the pandemic situation.
This has weakened the KPU’s legal authority to totally alter voting regulations and procedures in alignment with the changes brought by the COVID-19 situation, such as voting using postal services or scheduling early-bird voting slots.
“What we see right now is nothing but policy flip-flops. We should’ve taken care of the principal regulations first, namely the Regional Elections Law,” Hadar said.
Exactly for that reason, Hadar, who is a former KPU member, advises the government to just postpone the regional elections all the while revising the Regional Elections Law and drafting a government regulation in lieu of law (locally known as Perppu) to adjust with the COVID-19 situation.
“This is why we need to postpone [the regional elections]. Just halt the cycle for a few months. We can then resume the cycle after we’ve improved the regulation. We need to do that if we are totally serious in prioritizing health protection,” he said.
Griffith University Australia epidemiologist Dicky Budiman stated that the voting process in 270 regions across Indonesia could possibly trigger an explosion of COVID-19 cases. To this day, Indonesia has not implemented all the health protection protocols properly throughout the elections cycle, including during the campaigns.
“For instance, although they typically wear their face masks during the campaigns, the candidates will usually speak loudly during these events, which could propel the spread of the virus,” he said during the same discussion.
Worse still, Indonesia’s case tracing capacity is also far from being adequate, covering 26,000 people per day only, a far cry from the World Health Organization’s minimum case tracing rate coverage of 38,000 individuals per day.
“Remember, these people will move here and there, interacting with one another. This could be a source of contagion, creating many clusters,” he said.
The kawalcovid.id website revealed that several regions which planned to conduct their regional elections actually belonged to the COVID-19 red zone. Up to Oct. 7, kawalcovid.id co-founder Elena Ciptadi revealed that the Central and East Java, North and East Kalimantan, North and West Sumatra, Lampung and West Java have a high COVID-19 vigilance index.
“Some regions even classify all their regencies as a red zone. The darker the red color marks indicating these zones get, the more cautious the citizens in the area should be,” Elena said.