Indonesia: Millions Expected to Vote in Local Polls despite COVID-19

Ronna Nirmala
Indonesia: Millions Expected to Vote in Local Polls despite COVID-19 A police officer steps off a boat while carrying a ballot box set to be delivered to a polling station in Sidoarjo, East Java province, ahead of local elections in Indonesia, Dec. 8, 2020.
Antara Foto/Umarul Faruq/Reuters

Millions of Indonesians will vote in local elections across the nation on Wednesday amid the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s Home Affairs Minister said on Tuesday, adding that he hoped well-instituted health protocols would encourage all voters to cast their ballots.

Meanwhile, the country’s Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) said that more than 1,400 of nearly 300,000 polling stations were not equipped to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We know that the simultaneous regional elections for the first time in the history of the Indonesian nation are to be held in the midst of a non-natural disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic,” Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian said in a teleconference on Tuesday.

“Hopefully voters will not worry about coming to the polling stations as long as the health protocols are well implemented. We are trying to prevent COVID-19 transmission during all stages of the elections.”

More than 100 million people are eligible to vote for nine governors, 223 regents and 37 mayors.

As of Tuesday, 1,420 polling stations on Sumatra and Borneo islands did not have safe waiting locations, hand washing stations, electronic temperature measuring devices and disposable gloves, Bawaslu said.

“In these places, compliance with the health protocols set by the election commission is still low,” Bawaslu member Mochammad Afifuddin told BenarNews.

Indonesia is East Asia’s coronavirus top hotspot. The country recorded 5,292 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total number of infections to 586,842. The virus-related death toll rose by 133, to 18,000.

Leading into what officials are calling the nation’s largest-ever simultaneous local election, 1,023 poll workers had tested positive for COVID-19, Bawaslu officials said.

In addition, at least 63 candidates had tested positive for the coronavirus, including three who had died from being infected.

Arief Budiman, chairman of the General Election Commission, or KPU, said polling officers who tested positive for COVID-19 would be replaced. He and two KPU members have also contracted COVID-19.

“I have asked them to be replaced, and under certain conditions, the KPU regulations would allow five people,” in each polling station, Arief told reporters during a teleconference.

Previous requirements called for at least seven workers at each polling station, to ensure that health guidelines such as social distancing and mask-wearing were followed.

The polls could lead to an uptick in infections, Tri Yunis Miko Wahyono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, said.

“Obviously it is impossible to cancel the elections. Hopefully the government is prepared for the consequences, including a shortage of medical workers and hospitals being at capacity,” Yunis told BenarNews.

Globally, more than 6.6 million people have been infected by the coronavirus and more than 177,000 have died, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

Vaccine update

Meanwhile, state-owned pharmaceutical company Bio Farma late Tuesday walked back its comments from earlier in the day on the purported efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine it is testing for Chinese developer Sinovac Biotech.

Bio Farma is conducting phase three trials for the Sinovac vaccine in Indonesia, which involves 1,600 volunteers.

Bio Farma spokesman Iwan Setiawan said early data indicated that 97 percent of those injected with the Sinovac vaccine developed antibodies.

That is, the vaccine had a 97 percent seroconversion rate, with “seroconversion” being the development of an immune antibody as a result of vaccination.

Earlier on Tuesday, Bio Farma had said the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine had a 97 percent efficacy rate, but Iwan later said the company had meant to announce that the seroconversion rate was 97 percent in phase three trials.

“As for efficacy, we'll have to wait until January at the end of the third-phase trial to get full data. We will find out in January whether the presence of antibodies provides protection against COVID-19,” Iwan said.

Phase three clinical trials are going on, and it is estimated that there will be an interim report only in January, Bio Farma said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, China’s Jiemian news website, citing Sinovac’s spokesperson in Beijing, said on Tuesday that the company had not yet obtained efficacy data on the vaccine.

Trials underway in Brazil would generate such data, the spokesman told the news site.

Indonesia received 1.2 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine on Sunday. Only the full results of phase three trials will determine whether Indonesia authorizes the vaccine for emergency use starting in January.

Bio Farma, too, has contracted to start producing the Sinovac vaccine early next year, but only pending the results of phase three clinical trials.

On Monday, the Minister for Human Development and Culture announced that the Indonesian Council of Ulema, the country’s leading authority on Islamic affairs, had completed its assessment of Sinovac’s vaccine.

“The government will ask the MUI to immediately issue a halal certification for the [Sinovac] COVID-19 vaccine,” Minister Muhadjir Effendy said.

“But because we are in an emergency period, even if it is not halal, it must be used.”

Globally, more than 6.6 million people have been infected by the coronavirus and more than 177,000 have died, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

Pre-election rioting

In Papua province on Tuesday, the government postponed the election for regent in Boven Digoel following a dispute, which led to rioting late last month by supporters of one of the candidates, the home affairs minister said.

The dispute erupted after the electoral commission disqualified Yusak Yaluwo and running mate Yakob Weremba, who are backed the Democratic, Golkar Party and Perindo parties.

On Nov. 30, Yusak’s supporters rioted and attacked police, journalists and the regency’s office building, according to authorities.

The commission ruled that Yusak could not run because he had been sentenced following his conviction on a corruption charge and had completed probation only three years ago.

The law stipulates that former convicts cannot run for office for five years after completing their sentences.

Yusak is appealing the decision.

However, voting in 10 other regencies in Papua, where a separatist insurgency has been brewing for decades, will go ahead despite security concerns. Papua police spokesman Ahmad Musthofa Kamal said 600 riot police would be sent to the regencies on Wednesday.

“Even though there are security threats, it is our responsibility to ensure that the elections run well, safely and peacefully,” Kamal told reporters.


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