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Indonesia: Health Groups Probe Causes of Poll-Worker Deaths

Rina Chadijah and Kusumasari Ayuningtyas
Jakarta and Yogyakarta, Indonesia
2019-05-10
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Sih Sugiarti (in black hijab) talks about her late husband, Lilik Suswanto, with visitors to her home in Indonesia’s Sleman regency, May 10, 2019.
Sih Sugiarti (in black hijab) talks about her late husband, Lilik Suswanto, with visitors to her home in Indonesia’s Sleman regency, May 10, 2019.
Kusumasari Ayuningtyas/BenarNews

Lilik Suswanto felt dizzy and wanted to rest.

The 59-year-old had worked non-stop for two days last month as head of a polling place in Indonesia’s Sleman Regency, his widow recalled.

Lilik succumbed in a hospital on April 23, one of more than 500 poll officials and police who died of exhaustion or illnesses associated with working long hours in the days before, during and after Indonesia’s general election on April 17, according to authorities.

“Before being taken to the hospital, he experienced vertigo and vomiting. He just wanted to lie down,” Lilik’s wife, Sih Sugiarti, told BenarNews. “He had a history of high blood pressure.”

His doctor told Lilik he had a blocked artery, said Sih, a 55-year-old mother of three.

Indonesia, a young democracy and the most populous nation in Southeast Asia, had never staged an election on this scale – presidential, legislative, provincial-level and other polls held at the same time on a single day. The vote was the biggest single-day exercise in democracy held in the history of the world, observers said.

But the unprecedented number of deaths of poll workers and others during a peaceful vote has led to calls to stop holding the elections all together at once across the sprawling archipelago.

The General Election Commission (KPU) said 440 polling station officials had died. And according to the Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu), another 92 monitors along with 22 police officers died while helping to oversee and safeguard the polls.

The causes of death for 18 people have been determined and included heart attack, stroke, liver disease, respiratory failure and brain infection, Health Minister Nila Moeloek announced on Wednesday.

In addition, at least another 4,300 election workers had to be treated at hospitals, the KPU said.

Medical investigations

An election monitoring team from the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) will investigate the deaths next week, commissioner Beka Ulung Hapsara said.

The team will announce its findings before the official vote count is released on May 22, he said.

“We want to obtain valid data directly from the relevant sources so conclusions are not just based on rumors,” Beka told reporters.

Djazuli Ambari, chairman of the Indonesian Red Crescent Society, called for a check of medical histories.

“Medical and forensic audits can contain chronological reports on clinical care of the patients. Complete information obtained from the audit can be a basis for consideration in making regulations for next elections,” Djazuli said in a statement to BenarNews.

Ani Hasibuan, a neurologist, said she had conducted independent research and was convinced that exhaustion was not the main cause of the deaths, because younger people were among those who died.

“Physiologically, fatigue rarely causes death, unless a person has an underlying disease. I want it to be investigated. It’s not enough for KPU officials to say they died of exhaustion,” she told the detik.com news website.

Millions cast ballots

The 550-plus officials and policemen who died on or around Election Day were among some 7 million workers deployed at more than 800,000 polling sites scattered nationwide.

Almost 81 percent of 192 million eligible Indonesians voted on April 17, electing a president, 575 members of the House of Representatives, 136 members of the Regional Representative Council and almost 20,000 members of local legislatures in 548 provinces, districts and municipalities, officials said.

In the presidential race, incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is poised for a second and final five-year term. He has a 10-point lead over challenger Prabowo Subianto, with about 70 percent of the votes counted, according to unofficial projections of results by independent polling groups.

On Friday, hundreds of Prabowo supporters marched in front of the election supervisory agency office in Jakarta to protest what they called voter fraud. Protestors staged a similar, smaller rally in front of the General Election Commission Office on Thursday.

Participants at Friday’s rally included conservative Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front and Eggi Sudjana, a politician questioned by police over a speech he made last month, in which he stated that a Prabowo loss would be a sign of fraud.

Jakarta police deployed 10,000 personnel including a mobile brigade to maintain security.

Legislative action

Meanwhile, the deaths of poll workers like Lilik Suswanto have brought about a debate and calls for a review of laws mandating simultaneous elections at various levels.

The hundreds who died in connection with this year’s vote eclipsed around 150 deaths of poll workers during the 2014 presidential election, which was held apart from legislative elections.

Legislator Rambe Kamarul Zaman said lawmakers agreed to discuss the issue on May 23.

“I agree that there needs to be a change in the rules and mechanism for elections. We expect to come up with many ideas during the discussion,” the Golkar Party lawmaker told BenarNews.

Rambe and fellow legislator Ahmad Baidlowi said issues to be considered would include the use of electronic voting machines and a review of the recruitment process for election workers.

“We will evaluate all aspects, of course, but finger-pointing is not helpful. We must see to it that future elections will be better,” he told BenarNews.

The number of deaths over the course of more than two weeks did not exceed the average mortality rate for Indonesia, given that there were more than 7 million election workers, Jesse Grayman, a health sector researcher, wrote on Asia Media Center, a website based in New Zealand.

“In fact, it’s much less, as it should be since average mortality rates capture the elderly and sick in the general population who would be dying no matter what, and presumably are not working as election workers,” he said.

“Another popular comparison is with the reported deaths of Indonesians who undertake the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a whole order of magnitude higher with anywhere from 200 to 500 deaths out of around 200,000 Indonesian pilgrims every year,” he said.

Back in Sleman, Lilik’s widow said she would not sue over her husband’s death but hoped the government would keep its promise to provide “condolence money” of 36 million rupiah (U.S. $2,500).

“Hopefully the compensation will be given soon,” Sih said.

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