Media and Elections in Indonesia


Abdul Manant

General elections in democratic countries constitute a formal mechanism that enables people to elect representatives who will participate on their behalf in the process of governance. They also provide a means for rotating responsibility for governance.

In Indonesia general elections involve electing presidential and vice presidential candidates, members of the House of Representatives (DPR)1 at the central level, and members of the Regional Representative Council (DPD)2 and the Regional Legislative Councils (DPRD) at the provincial, regional and mayoralty levels.

General elections also involve logistics: the supply and distribution of materials ranging from ballot papers to vote-counting forms to thousands of polling stations (TPS) across the country. In addition, general elections involve the management of a large amount of state money.

Since 2004 two types of general elections have been conducted in Indonesia. The first set is the legislative election to select members of DPR, DPD, and DPRD at the provincial, regional and mayoralty levels. The second set is the election to choose the president and the vice president.

The history of Indonesian general elections began with Vice President Moh. Hatta’s declaration on 3 November 1945 regarding the establishment of political parties, even though the first general election was held only in 1955. Subsequently six general elections took place up to 1998: in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1987, 1992 and 1997. However, the first general election in 1955 is still considered the most democratic one because those held during what is known as the New Order period (1965-1998) did not conform to established norms of electoral practice, which are supposed to ensure free, honest, just and democratic elections.

After 1955, the first really democratic general election was held in 1999, when the country was in a period of transition from an authoritarian state to a democratic one. The system followed in 1999 was in many ways different from those followed in previous elections. For example, in five earlier elections only three political parties had contested the polls; in contrast, 48 parties participated in the 1999 election. The organisation of the election was also not monopolised by the government. However, the presidential election in 1999 was similar to the previous ones: the outcome was still determined by the 1000 members of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR)3

The electoral system continued to change between the 1999 and 2009 general elections. It is not known whether the current system will be maintained in future elections or whether it will again be reorganised here and there. For Indonesia, the system to be followed for general elections is usually stipulated in a package of regulations made by the government, along with the DPR, generally known as the Package of Political Legislations. The regulations include the Law on Political Parties, the Law on Organising General Elections, the Law on Legislative Election, and the Law on Presidential and Vice Presidential Election.

With a system that has not yet been standardised and has the potential to change, every now and then, one of the best ways to understand the rules of the game of the Indonesian election process is to read the latest regulations. This article is based on the Package of Political Legislations in operation between 2007 and 2009, and attempts to explain the organisation of general elections in Indonesia through various stages over the past decade, as well as to highlight a number of crucial issues that need to be kept in mind while covering general elections in Indonesia.

Data collection

Collecting data on voters is the first task undertaken during the initial stages of the election process. According to the law, all citizens who are at least 17 years old or are married and have been registered as voters are eligible to vote. Demographic data compiled by the government is updated by the General Election Commission, which then draws up the Preliminary Voters’ List (DPS). The list is made available to the public as well as representatives of political parties and is corrected on the basis of inputs from them before finally being declared as the Permanent Voters’ List (DPT). During the general election in 1999 the list comprised 110 million voters, while over 147 million (147,310,885) people exercised their franchise in the 2004 election and more than 171 million (171,068,667) cast their votes in 2009.

The process of collecting and compiling voter data is a crucial election-related issue. Besides the question of ensuring that the political rights of citizens are fulfilled, there is the possibility of foul play that can skew votes in favour of certain political parties or candidates. So journalists must subject the voters’ list to close scrutiny. One way of doing this is by monitoring the process of updating the data. In the period before the DPS becomes the DPT the media also need to check on possible duplication (voters appearing more than once on the list), the possible inclusion of people who are legally not eligible to vote, and so on.

Several institutions can be useful sources of information during the data collection phase. Among them are the Commission of General Election (KPU)4, the Election Monitoring Body (Bawaslu)5, the Centre for Electoral Reform (Cetro)6, the Voters’ Education Network for the People ( JPPR)7, and the Indonesian Voters’ Committee.


The important actors in the general election include political parties, member candidates of various electoral bodies, and the president and vice president. Candidates for the Legislative Election run through political parties, competing for seats in the central and regional parliaments, while DPD candidates compete in their personal names.

Since 1999 more political parties have been participating in the general elections – certainly more than the three that used to be in the fray during the New Order period. In the 1999 general election 48 parties were in the running, in 2004 there were 24 parties and in 2009 there were 38 (including local parties in Aceh). The explosion in the number of parties has been caused by policies meant to liberalise politics, which have made it relatively easy to establish parties. A political party can now be established by bringing together 50 people. However, not every new party can automatically join the general election. For that parties have to observe other rules, like having a certain number of members, a proper executive board, etc.

The criteria to be candidates for membership of the DPR and DPD are generally similar: a minimum age of 21 years, a minimum qualification of having successfully completed senior high school graduate, and no jail term for at least five years prior to standing for elections. For DPR membership, there is an additional requirement that the candidate be a registered member of a political party. The criteria for presidential candidates are a bit different. Among the additional requirements are that he or she must provide proof of wealth, report to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK)8 and submit a copy of the Taxpayers’ Registration Number. The candidate must also not be involved in outlawed organisations.

The number of member candidates for DPR, DPD and DPRD that political parties can put forward is strictly limited: it cannot exceed the number of seats up for election in a region. Presidential and vice presidential candidates have to be supported by a party or a coalition of parties which have secured a minimum of 20 per cent of seats in the DPR. Thanks to this rule, less than five candidates generally run for the presidency.

The media need to scrutinise political parties and check whether or not they are abiding by the regulations. The documents submitted by candidates must be examined for accuracy. Since candidates for the presidency require the support of at least 20 per cent of DPR members, selection of candidates usually involves lobbying among political parties and the formation of coalitions. The media need to report on the terms on which coalitions come together.


General elections require the procurement of plenty of goods and services. Take, for example, ballot papers. During the 2009 election, about 686 million ballot papers were printed; the figure for the 2004 election was 660 million. And this was just for the legislative elections. For the presidential election more ballot papers were printed (an additional one-third of the total number). Other major purchases include indelible ink, ballot boxes and forms to report the results of vote counting. Information technology is also required for the quick counting of votes. During the 2009 general election, the Corruption Eradication Commission intervened following suspected irregularities in the procurement of software, for which an expenditure of 234.02 billion rupiah was shown.

The media need to report on KPU’s adherence to regulations about the procurement of goods and services. During the 2004 election a number of KPU members were prosecuted, tried and finally jailed for not following the rules. One way to investigate allegations of corruption in procurement is to compare the budget or statement of accounts with the market prices of the same goods and services. Several institutions, such as the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency (Fitra), the Indonesian Budget Centre and Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW )9 can serve as sources of information on this aspect of the elections.

Monitoring campaigns

Election campaigns generally stretch over a fairly long period and require special attention. Candidates are supposed to use the opportunity of their campaigns to introduce the vision and mission of his or her candidacy. With the large number of parties and hundreds of candidates, it is impossible for the media to follow all the campaigns and record all the candidates’ promises well. Under the circumstances the general tendency is to select the campaigns of parties or candidates considered particularly interesting: either because of the quality of their campaigns or because of their potential to get elected.

Some campaigners offer voters money rather than programmes for action. According to the law, anyone practicing such ‘money politics’ faces two years in jail. So exposing such malpractices is good for news. Another violation of the law commonly seen during the campaign period is the use of State facilities for campaign purposes. Besides providing direct coverage of such violations, journalists can get background material and/or additional information from the ICW, the Centre for Electoral Reform (Cetro), the Voters’ Education Network for the People ( JPPR), the KPU and Bawaslu.

Voting day

Voting day is the day of determination, when voters decide to whom their votes will be given. Many interesting and important things take place at this stage. However, the huge number of polling stations (TPS) makes it difficult for even political parties to deploy witnesses at all of them.

During the 2004 legislative election there were 576,625 TPS; the figure went up to 581,393 during the presidential election. In 2009 the numbers were lower: 519,920 TPS for the legislative election and 451,182 TPS for the presidential election. Even then the total number of TPS was too big to be covered by the media. Under the circumstances a realistic choice was to cover a polling station where party leaders or prominent candidates would be casting their ballots.

A number of problems can arise on voting day. The media need to ask certain questions to verify facts: Do the number of counted votes tally with the number of voters? Is the counting done correctly and recorded accurately? Are the results reported to KPU in line with the results emerging at the TPS? Are the electoral officials neutral? Another important factor that must be monitored on voting day is the possibility of “dawn attacks” or the practice of distributing money to voters at dawn before they cast their ballots.

For the voting stage of the electoral process, several institutions can be tapped for information. Among them are Cetro, JPPR and the Indonesian Voters’ Committee, as well as the KPU and Bawaslu. To get an idea of the preliminary results of vote counting, journalists can turn to the quick counts conducted by several survey agencies. However, they need to check on the credibility of such organisations and the soundness of the methodologies they use.

Campaign funds

This is a very crucial issue even though it is less dramatic than the hustle and bustle of campaigns and the excitement of vote-counting and election results. During the 2004 general election contributions from individuals were limited to 250 million rupiah each and from corporate bodies to 750 million rupiah each. The policy changed drastically in 2009, with the limit for individual contributions rising to 1 billion rupiah and for corporate contributions to 5 billion rupiah. Even more surprisingly, there were no limits at all on contributions from parties and candidates.

In covering the issue of campaign funds, the main point for the media to focus on is compliance with the prevailing rules. The law bans campaign funds from foreigners, the government, state enterprises and contributors with unclear identities. Punishment for violations of these rules can be severe, with the jail term going up to 36 months.

One way to investigate suspected manipulation of campaign funds is to check claims in the reports of parties or candidates. The ICW’s findings indicate that the common modus operandi used in the manipulation of campaign funds is the use of fictitious names and addresses to get around the legal limitations on the number of campaign fund contributions. Journalists can use the ICW and accountants or auditors as sources of information on the issues concerning campaign funds.

Election disputes

Courts provide an alternative forum to seek the resolution of a political dispute. The practice of bringing disputes over election results to the Constitutional Court 10 began during the 2004 general election. The court’s ruling is final and binding in nature. To avoid the accumulation of cases, the kinds of disputes that can be brought before the court are strictly limited.

Following the 2004 general election, the Constitutional Court received 273 cases involving electoral disputes. With the large number of cases, the media could not follow all the trial proceedings. Moreover, the Constitutional Court is given only 14 days to issue rulings on disputes relating to the presidential election and 30 days for disputes arising from the Legislative Election. So the schedule of hearings is tight. A realistic way for the media to cover such disputes is to concentrate on cases involving political parties with a significant share of votes or disputes involving prominent figures.

The good news is that – unlike other courts – the Constitutional Court is the only one that operates on modern judicial concepts. Its rulings can be easily accessed, even by the public. Even if journalists do not have time to closely follow the trial, the results are available soon after the judicial panel issues the judgment with the rulings promptly appearing on the website of the Court, where they can be accessed for free.