Indonesians Fight for Their Right to Not Vote
It's an act of protest—but the government calls it terrorism.
JAKARTA, Indonesia—After Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in late 2017 rejected a petition to criminalize sex outside of marriage, which would have effectively criminalized homosexuality, Amahl S. Azwar, a 31-year-old Indonesian gay man who currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, felt relieved—but it didn’t last. Amahl soon read an interview that Maruf Amin, a prominent Muslim cleric and then-leader of the top clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council, gave to a local newspaper. He maintained that “homosexuals … are haram” and that sex not between a man and a woman should be illegal. Some time later, Amahl learned that Maruf was appointed as the running mate of incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in this year’s presidential election.
That was when Amahl decided not to vote for either candidate on April 17. “The LGBT community has always been the marginalized group in Indonesia. By deciding to not vote, I’d like to demonstrate that the LGBT community is a group that needs to be accounted for,” he told Foreign Policy.
Amahl is typical of a protest route increasingly chosen by Indonesians. Known colloquially in Indonesian as golput—or golongan putih, “white group,” because protesters cast a blank vote by simply punching the white part of the ballot—commitment to nonvoting has become increasingly popular as a compromised Jokowi squares off against Prabowo Subianto, a former military commander. The term originated to describe protest abstentions, but over time has been expanded to include any skipping of the vote by a registered voter, whether out of protest, indifference, or laziness—and it has been widely attacked by politicians.
Philipp Dreyer, a researcher in electoral politics, noted that Indonesians’ use of abstention as protest was unusual. What sets Indonesia apart from countries like the United States, where turnout in presidential races usually hovers around 50 percent, is the deep politicization of the issue, he added. In the United States, “public figures are careful not to vilify abstainers out of fear to alienate them further. Instead, politicians make positive efforts to mobilize these people, especially because there is a general recognition that abstention is associated with lack of resources,” he said. In Indonesia, in contrast, golput are a deeply politicized group.
Historically, golput started in 1971, when activists protested the military-controlled authoritarianism of the New Order regime under then-President Suharto. Those elections were a sham, designed to keep Suharto in power. “The climate around that time was not at all democratic, unlike today. But I see more similarities, than differences,” said Made Supriatma, a researcher and a visiting fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Golput is conducted by registered voters who consciously don’t vote “either through apathy or an act of protest of both candidates,” said Titi Anggraini, the executive director of the monitoring group Association for Elections and Democracy. Voter turnout in Indonesia, according to Titi, is high, but since at least 2004—when Indonesia first held its direct presidential election—the golput figure has crept up. In the 2014 presidential election, it reached 30.2 percent, from 24 percent in 2004.
Made noted that disappointment this election stems from both candidates’ track records, particularly on human rights: Jokowi, who has yet to stoke reconciliation with the victims of the 1965 anti-communist pogrom, and Prabowo, who is accused of ordering the kidnapping of a number of activists during the 1998 riots that toppled the corrupt, 32-year autocracy of Suharto.
“I’m even careful [when talking] about golput, because anything I say can be weaponized legally against me,” Made said, referring to Indonesia’s notorious Electronic Information and Transactions law, which functions to silence online critics of the government or private figures. Under the law, virtually any posts on social media can be deemed libelous. This so-called elastic law is similar in its egregiousness to Indonesia’s blasphemy law, which put a former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, in jail in 2017 for making a joke about the Quran (he was released in January). During Jokowi’s administration, as of last October, 23 people have been convicted under the blasphemy law.
Golput has also invited derision from members of Jokowi’s team: His security minister, Wiranto, told reporters that “if we can’t use the terrorism law, there are other laws. We can also use the [electronic information and transactions law] or the criminal code” to penalize those who encourage nonvoting. Former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri said in a speech in Sukoharjo, Central Java, in March that not voting was “cowardly.”
“The narrative of golput being cowardly, or punishable, or that it’s an act of terrorism—it didn’t exist before. It was more of an appeal,” Titi said, adding that the vilification of golput has reached levels she has never seen since she started monitoring elections in 1999, when the first election was held in newly democratic Indonesia.
Some Indonesians don’t have a choice in voting, such as those without proper certificates such as a government-issued electronic ID or a birth certificate. “There are still people living on disputed lands or in the forests. There’s also the poor, whom I predict will be disenfranchised next week. They don’t count as golput,” Titi said. According to a report by the BBC, at least a million indigenous people won’t be able to vote.
Made predicted that the golput this time around will mostly be those who once supported Jokowi when he was first elected five years ago. It’s in line with the extent to which Indonesians are forced to be partisan, he said: “It’s true that golput as an act of protest isn’t all that significant [numbers wise]. But voters today are forced to take sides. There’s no middle road.”