The experience of Asian countries in conducting general elections in the time of Covid-19 pandemic has proven that innovation of voting system can guarantee democratization.
During the period of March 2020 to March 2021, six countries in Southeast Asia held general elections. The countries are Singapore, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and South Korea.
On July 10, 2020, Singapore decided to extend its voting time until night to accomodate the elderly voters. Within a day, the Singaporean Election Commission divided the voting schedule into three sessions.
The first one, started from 8 am to 12 pm, was dedicated for the elderly voters. Meanwhile, there were some voters who were sick but did not want to miss the opportunity to use their political rights, as many of them joined the voting in the last session. With this method of voting, the level of voters’ participation in Singapore increased by 2.11 percent.
Executive Director of Asian Network for Free Election (ANFREL), Chandanie Watawala, said that alternative method of voting was crucial to guarantee people’s voting rights. “Whatever the situation is, democratic election should be guaranteed by finding new strategies, consulting new methods,” Chandanie said in a discussion on Examining Southeast Asia Democracy in the Time of Pandemic on Thursday, April 1, 2021.
Unlike Singapore, Myanmar—currently facing a political crisis, implemented a preliminary election method to accommodate voters who were unavailable on the polling day. The organizer provided additional polling stations, and engaged health officers to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, Thailand no longer use a preliminary voting method in the period of December 2020 to March 2021. Consequently, the level of participation in Thailand was only 58 percent, fall short of the 70 percent target.
The low level of voter turnouts in Thailand, according to Chandanie, was also affected by lack of dissemination of information for voters and poll officers. “We asked the officers about ‘what would they do when they find a voter with high body temperature? Would the voter be allowed to continue? And they said it was no problem.”
“In fact, it is clearly stipulated in the regulion that voters with high body temperature should be separated from other voters and cast their votes in a designated place,” Chandanie continued.
The implementation of health protocols during election is very crucial in the time of pandemic. In addition to convincing people to participate in the voting, health protocols also prevent the election venue from ‘forming a new cluster of Covid-19 spread’. This happened in Malaysia, where the Covid-19 cases escalated after an election in Sabah on September 29, 2020.
In this regard, Net 2.0 Malaysia Member, Thomas Fan, is pushing for the expansion of the voting system via post. So far, this method has only been used specifically by the police and soldiers who are on duty outside of their domicile. “We require this method to be provided to anyone who need to use it,” said Thomas.
Secretary General of the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), Eric Alvia, is optimistic that changing methods and the use of digital technology can maintain democratization, as well as protecting public health. According to him, the innovation of voting system is absolutely necessary for countries that will face elections in the near future, including the Philippines in 2022.
According to Eric, there is a concern that this country will not be able to design an independent election because it often uses the pandemic as an excuse to limit democratic space and to suppress opposition. “The practice (of independent election) might only be implemented only in a few areas, but it is very meaningful. It can be developed as a way to anticipate the practice of authoritarianism,” he said.
He expressed similar hope for Indonesia. In 2024, Indonesia will hold general elections and regional head elections simultaneously. The general election will be held in February or March 2024, while the regional head elections will be held simultaneously nationwide in November 2024. Starting mid-2022, the General Election Commission (KPU) will begin preparations for the democratic party.
Member of the Board of Trustees of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) Titi Anggraini warned about the heavy burden of organizing the 2024 general election. Titi did not want this big celebration to actually worsen the quality of democracy in Indonesia. Based on data from The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2021, Indonesia’s Democracy Index stands at its lowest since 2005 with 6.30 points. Meanwhile, the corruption perception index has decreased from 85 in 2019 to 102 in 2020 from 180 countries. The freedom score from Freedom House is only 61 out of 100 points.
“Based on this data, the performance of Indonesian democracy has decreased. The challenge is that we have problems with procedures such as elections, democratization of political parties and others. We have not yet produced the substance of democracy,” said Titi.
One of the biggest challenges during this pandemic period, according to Titi, was the lack of public involvement in drafting regulations. This has been obvious since the government revised the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Law. Even though civil society refused, the government continued the revision of the regulation, which had an impact on the weakening of the KPK. With the new regulation, the KPK decided to stop investigating the case of Bank Indonesia Liquidity Assistance (BLBI), which involved Sjamsul Nursalim and his wife, Itjih Sjamsul Nursalim on March 31, by issuing the SP3 letter. This decision is quite surprising, given the huge amount of energy spent investigating cases that are suspected of causing losses of Rp 4.58 trillion to the state.
Apart from the KPK Law, Titi also focused on the alleged trickery behind the deliberation of the Mining Law and the Constitutional Court Law. According to him, the Laws were revised in a short time without involving civilians. “By using pandemic as an excuse, policy makers always say they cannot provide access to the public,” said Titi.