The perils and duties of a first-time voter


The much-awaited April 2019 election is slowly approaching. For the first time, Indonesian voters will be electing their representatives and the president on the same ballot. The rematch between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto for the presidency will be its main feature. As has been the case with our elections, the usual tensions and festivities have begun long before the party has arrived.

Indonesia has been hailed by many outsiders as a model of an emerging democracy. The fact that this “improbable nation” of thousands of islands and hundreds of ethnic groups could become the world’s second largest democracy is undeniably impressive. Twenty years ago, we are still under the iron-fisted rule of a military general; today, we can vote for our subdistrict councilors and all the way up to our president.

Next year’s election will be special for me, and I can’t help but think of the millions of fellow 18- and 19-somethings that will be sharing the experience. This will be the first national election where we can exercise our right as a citizen of the republic: suffrage.

For me, voting is a wholly personal experience. I was born a year after reformasi (reform movement), so I have no memories of the New Order’s democracy (or lack thereof). I do not remember much about President Habibie’s years. I vaguely recall Gus Dur’s presidency. I recognize President Megawati from the posters that plastered the walls of my kindergarten, all smiles in her signature kebaya (Javanese blouse) among a bunch of men in suits and peci (cap).

I do, however, clearly remember the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s rise to the presidency. My earliest memory of an election is going with my parents to a voting booth in 2004. I was 5 years old, but I remember Yudhoyono from his sleek hair and funny nickname. I was too young to grasp the significance of his being the first popularly elected president of the country, but I cheered anyway when we had to return for another round of voting. Maybe I just love going to places where they put ink on your thumb after punching holes in colorful sheets of paper and placing them in large boxes.

We moved abroad three years later, and we were there when the 2009 election approached. I do not remember much about it, other than my father being part of the local election committee at the nearby Indonesian consulate-general. But I was 10 then, and knew much more than when I was 5. I knew, for example, that Yudhoyono was running for another five years and his former vice president, Jusuf Kalla, was challenging him, and that this was a normal thing in politics. The incumbent, of course, won another five-year term.

The year 2014 was completely different. I had just graduated junior high school and was politically aware enough to grasp the concept. I couldn’t vote, and I again accompanied my parents to the ballot. I had not developed enough opinions to influence how they voted. Suffice it to say, their preferred candidate was not elected.

Read also: Insight: After 2018 simultaneous elections: What’s next?

Witnessing three elections as a kid made me realize a few things. First, I’ve never lived under an undemocratic Indonesia; I have always lived under a democracy and played my part. I thought this had been the usual practice for years, until I started learning of the battles that brought down tyranny on our own doorstep.

Second, I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that considered voting to be a sacred, civic duty. My parents were considerate enough to take me along as part of a democratic Indonesia, hoping that one day that I would play my own part in shaping it.

I did not realize until much later that a democracy cannot be taken for granted. I moved abroad two years ago as an exchange student and witnessed the historic 2016 US election. Nobody expected the winner of the race, a man who was never shy about showing his contempt for democratic values. I remember canvassing for local candidates and met a kind elderly lady who told us that she was definitely going to vote and greeted me with “salaam” when we were about to leave. When Election Day had wrapped up, I could not help but wonder whether that lady had voted or not, because life would be tougher for people like her under the man now in power.

I learned that many people could not afford the luxury of not caring about politics because their very life depended on the policies of the next government. They care because they have to; else, their interests would be in danger. Every person has their own interests, and they should be encouraged to participate in civil activity for that reason.

Democracy, in its most ideal form, is a process. It is not an inherited set of ideals. It must not be complacent, and it must be guarded against the threats that could weaken it. Indonesians, 200-something million of us, cannot let our hard-fought democracy slip away. Some people simply cannot afford to, because they already suffered under an authoritarian system.

First-time voters might find the choices unappealing, the political parties brazenly corrupt or feel that the election is a waste of time. Those might be valid reasons, but then again, a flawed democracy cannot be fixed by abandoning it. It requires repairing, and the voters hold the key to the toolbox. Golput (abstention) must not be an option for first-time voters.

Elections are not the means, it’s just a tool. Voters have to actively hold their representatives accountable as long as they hold the people’s mandate; to maintain the check and balances, as it were. Democracy is the consent of the governed, not of the government.

These things are important for first-time voters, as we are now part of the electorate that determines the country’s future. Most of us were born after reformasi, so we have lived a single day under the New Order. We have lived in a democratic Indonesia since our births. We have the power to keep it that way – hopefully – for a long time, and we must vote with our hearts. (kes)


Ramzy reads law at Andalas University in Padang. He is also a co-founder of Minangkabau Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


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