Ahead of the Presidential Election on 17 April, many Indonesian voters have begun publicly declaring an intention to not cast a vote, or golput. Frustrated with a lack of candidates representing their interests, young voters have even offered their support to a satirical fictional candidate pair Nurhadi-Aldo (“Dildo”) in preference to the official candidates.
The term golput is derived from the Indonesian expression golongan putih (white group). Golput began as a political act, a form of protest against rigged elections under the New Order – the term even mimics the name of Soeharto’s political vehicle, Golkar. Now, however, golput is used as a catch-all term for all forms of non-voting, whether intentional abstention, disenfranchisement (for example, because of administrative problems), or simply apathy.
Indonesia has relatively high levels of voter turnout by international standards but levels of golput have increased significantly since the first democratic elections post-Soeharto in 1999. What does this trend mean for Indonesian democracy? Is the rise in golput levels a normal part of democratic maturation or does it represent a warning sign about serious problems in the system?
The government is clearly worried about rising levels of non-participation, and has even suggested those encouraging golput should be made subject to criminal sanctions. It tends to group all non-voters together as apathetic individuals who delegitimise the electoral system. But rather than dismissing them as apathetic or irresponsible, non-voters should be seen as attempting to strengthen the democratic electoral system. They offer an important critique of not just the ruling party but also existing power structures.
Why do voters golput?
The most common reason for golput is anger or dissatisfaction with the available candidates or lack of trust in a political system that many view as corrupt and unrepresentative. We call this type of non-voting “political golput”, because voters are intentionally deciding not to vote for political reasons.
Many “political golput” are former supporters of incumbent candidate President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. In the 2014 election, Jokowi was supported by many civil society activists because he was seen as a reformer with no ties to the old political and military elite.
But just one year into his presidency, activists began criticising Jokowi for his failure to meet campaign commitments to human rights, religious freedom, corruption eradication and law enforcement. Disappointment peaked when Jokowi showed he was not above playing identity politics, appointing conservative Islamic scholar Ma’ruf Amin as his vice presidential running mate. He has also increasingly leaned on law enforcement to supress his opponents, leading some observers to warn of his growing authoritarian tendencies. Dissatisfaction with Jokowi’s performance led many of his former supporters (who voted against his rival, Prabowo Subianto, in the last election) to declare that they would rather golput than vote for either of the candidate pairs on offer.
This disenchantment may be a consequence of the emphasis on personalities in Indonesian politics. Indeed, expecting fundamental changes from a good individual with no support from an organised political force was only ever going to lead to disappointment. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that Jokowi has surrendered to the interests of the corrupt political system and is now displaying illiberal or anti-democratic tendencies.
On the other side, conservative Muslim supporters of Prabowo also put too much faith in their candidate for being able to deliver prosperity and justice for the Islamic community. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this belief in Prabowo is misguided, and that he is relying on the Muslim community for political mobilisation with little intention of ever fighting for their interests. Prabowo’s refusal to adopt conservative Muslims’ recommendation of vice presidential candidate is just one such example.
In fact, despite their electoral rivalry, Jokowi and Prabowo share connections to political and economic power in the House of Representatives (DPR) and business. Both have also accommodated members of the old guard with ties to the New Order and reproduce the same anti-communist messages.
This brings us to the next type of golput voters – those who are influenced by leftist ideas and believe that no matter who is president, the lower class will remain marginalised. They believe that although the people have a vote, they do not have a voice. They have never been political subjects as there has never been a party that represents and defends their interests. Without an organised political force, these people will never participate in elections, a stance that resonates with the attitudes of the first golput movement of the 1970s.
The final important group of golput voters are those who choose not to participate for lack of interest in the election, apathetic non-voters. In fact, a portion of these seemingly apathetic voters could also be classed as “political golput” as they feel that the democratic process and current system of political representation has no direct impact on their lives.
Criminalising political non-voters?
Seemingly aware that rising levels of golput will likely benefit Jokowi’s rival Prabowo, the government, through the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, has produced an infographic stating that persuading people to abstain from voting is a crime. It refers to Article 515 of Law 7 of 2017 on Elections.
When a group of civil society organisations stressed that, in fact, not voting was not a crime, another nongovernmental organisation, the Indonesia’s Women Coalition (KPI), came out in support of the government position. KPI referred to several provisions in the 2017 Elections Law, including Article 491 (on disrupting, obstructing or disturbing election campaigns), Article 517 (wilfully obstructing voting), and Article 531 (using violence to impede individuals from voting).
Although all the articles mentioned relate to non-voting, that does not mean that they can be automatically applied to penalise golput campaigners. For example, Article 515 requires giving a promise or money in exchange for voting in a particular way (including non-voting), while 531 requires the use of violence. Those voters declaring an intention to (or even encouraging) golput use neither of these tactics. Meanwhile, Article 491 makes no reference to non-voting and Article 517 refers specifically to the act of voting (pemungutan suara). There would need to be a very loose interpretation of these articles to make golput an offence.
Having said this, however, recent experiences with the Blasphemy Law and the 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions Law provide little comfort. Vague provisions in both laws have been loosely and aggressively interpreted to support powerful interests, including in government.
It is perfectly reasonable for civil society organisations to question the effectiveness of golput as a political strategy. But promoting a punitive approach, targeting non-voters through a loose and questionable interpretation of criminal law is counterproductive to efforts to strengthen Indonesian democracy – a goal that both KPI and most political golput voters share.
It is far more productive to reflect on why levels of golput are rising and how a growing golput movement can contribute to strengthening democracy.
To declare an intention to golput is not apathetic or irresponsible. One of the main reasons that levels of golput are rising is voter dissatisfaction with an electoral process dominated by transactional politics that has failed to produce qualified candidates that represent the interests of voters. Many political golput voters also criticise the system of power relations that means no matter who the candidate, the lower class – the majority of the electorate – remain without a voice.
If these critiques, public anger and disenchantment could be organised to form an oppositional force it could contribute to improving checks and balances in the democratic system. If this is to happen, political golput should not be viewed as a short-term movement designed to punish those in power or express dissatisfaction with the electoral process. It is true that the reasons for not voting are diverse but non-voters could be organised to establish an alternative political organisation for those who have not been represented in existing political parties and other democratic institutions.
Political golput can be an asset. But these political non-voters must be supported to engage with the political institutions that they criticise by establishing a new vehicle with a strong social basis. Leftist activists have made some preliminary attempts to organise victims of mining, plantation, infrastructure and other urban development projects, as well as some of the more radical labour unions.
But there is a need to build on these efforts and create a bigger movement. Perhaps golput could become the factor that unites the politically dissatisfied, the disenfranchised, and the disenchanted? If it worked, that would surely shake up a tired political system that urgently needs reinvigoration.