Home Liputan Khusus Impact of Covid-19 on Election and Democracy in Southeast Asia

Impact of Covid-19 on Election and Democracy in Southeast Asia

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Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic outbreak in 210 countries. The updated Worldometers data report (April 20, 06.21 Greenwich Mean Time / GMT), there were 2,407,699 positive cases with 165,093 deaths.

No exception, the world data was included from 11 countries in the Southeast Asia region. Indonesia became the Southeast Asian country with the highest deaths due to Covid-19, 582 people (with 6,575 positive cases). While Singapore is a country with the highest positive Covid-19 cases, 6,588 cases (with 11 deaths). These numbers are sequentially based on deaths compared to positive cases, the Philippines are 409 / 6,259, Malaysia 89 / 5,389, Thailand 47 / 2,792, Myanmar 5/111, Brunei 1/138, Vietnam 0/268, Cambodia 0/122, Laos and East Timor in 19 cases. (See https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/)

Covid-19 impacts many areas of a country. The country’s economy slumped in the form of factory closures and a variety of industrial sectors as well as termination of employment for workers. Some countries experience restrictions on freedom because of the state of emergency because of the government’s arbitration. Covid-19 also made a number of countries that were holding elections to make a special scenario regarding the delay and its continuation.

Rumahpemilu.org tried to interview Southeast Asian countries’ election and democracy actors in the context of Covid-19. From 11 countries, rumahpemilu.org managed to record and collect information on seven countries: Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. We haven’t collected the remaining four countries, such as Laos, Vietnam, East Timor and Brunei, because there are still too few victims to consider.

The following is an explanation of seven countries and their data and information in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic:

Indonesia

The increasingly widespread Covid-19 outbreak in Indonesia caused four stages of the 2020 simultaneous Regional Head Elections (Pilkada) in 270 regions to be postponed by the General Elections Commission (KPU). Voting was originally scheduled for September 23, 2020, but due to the uncertain end of the outbreak, the implementation of the sequel are still waiting for the Government’s decision.

KPU offers three options for simultaneous regional head elections in 2020. Option A, polling day, will be held on December 9, 2020 with stages to be continued from June. Option B, voting on March 17, 2021, the next stage starts in August 2020. Option C, September 29, 2021, the next stage starts in February 2021.

The certainty of the continuation of the 2020 Simultaneous Regional Head Elections will be decided by the President through a government regulation in lieu of laws (Perpu). The necessity of the President’s intervention through the legal products equivalent to this law is because the Regional Head Elections Law (No.10 / 2016) locks the voting schedule and does not give the KPU authority to be able to postpone nationally. At a consultation meeting held by the Commission II of the House of Representatives (DPR) on April 14, proposal from the Minister of Home Affairs (Mendagri) was agreed that the election day of the 2020 Simultaneous Regional Head Elections will be on December 9, 2020.

Upon the decision of the meeting, the KPU had planned several technical rules on the holding of the elections in the midst of a pandemic. Among them, namely, digital verification to verify the support of individual candidates; digital campaign; expanding the size of the polling station (TPS); reduction in the number of voters per polling station; and the provision of hand sanitizers and body temperature gauges at polling stations.

Towards the time of implementation of the continuation 2020 simultaneous regional head elections, there was a lot of discussion among civil society. Some civil society organizations propose that the Government does not decide on a continuation in December 2020. Civil society believes that June 2021 or option C is a better and safer time to choose.

KPU also objected to the choice of a continuation time in December 2020. KPU Chairperson, Arief Budiman said, the 9 December 2020 scenario was quite troublesome for the election organizers. Concerned about logistical and standard certainty to deal with the situation that first happened, it was feared could not be fulfilled.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government of Indonesia from the 2019 Elections has a trend of being arbitrary. The state of civil emergency previously wanted to be chosen to guarantee security by ignoring the human rights of citizens and many laws and regulations. Arrests were made of residents who criticized the government’s performance and manipulation of data on Covid-19 victims. At the end of April 2020, there was a tendency for the postponement of the 2020 elections by policy makers to be changed by the election of regional heads through the local parliament (DPRD) on the legal basis of the Government Regulation in Lieu of Law (Perpu).

 

Singapore

Singapore’s general election is scheduled for April 14, 2021 (Channelnewsasia.com, April 7). As usual, the electoral stage lasts for nine months. Thus, at least the stages have begun in August 2020. At this time the possibility of the Singapore Government is still imposing rules for residents to remain at home as well as financial penalties for violators.

In the context of Covid-19 which is still difficult to predict, the Government of Singapore introduced the Parliament Election Bill (Special Arrangement of COVID-19) on April 7, 2020. Even before, the Government had formed the Electoral District Review Committee on March 13, indicating that soon elections will be held (Singh, April 2).

In the Parliamentary Election Bill, there are a number of special rules so that all election actors are safe from Covid-19. The rules include: allowing the use of voting right for voters who are under orders to stay at home to vote in locations that are not their constituencies; the establishment of a special polling station if two or more people are found have to stay at home while the area is not their electoral district (The Straits Time, April 8); the person who is going to run for office can authorize another person to submit a nomination paper in his/her name, if he/she is in quarantine, Covid-19 patient, sick, or hospitalized; provision of several routes to the polling station (TPS); abolition of non-voting fines for quarantined voters (Channelnewsasia.com, April 7); requirement to remove the mask for voter identification; provision of special polling station with certain voting times for voters who are being quarantined; voters are not permitted to use public transportation and are only allowed to walk or drive their own cars; for patients with mild symptoms who are placed in housing centers, officers will submit ballots at polling stations set up outside the facility; officers wearing personal protective equipment; regular disinfection at polling stations; checking the voter temperature; and voter who has a temperature of 37.5 degrees or more will be taken to a separate polling area (Asiaone.com, April 16).

Previously, Elections Department of Singapore (ELD) had also opened election digital services. These include voter registration services, selecting election agents, paying election deposits, and procedures for submitting candidate names for ballots (Channelnewsasia.com, April 7).

The Covid-19 special Parliamentary Election Bill will be debated at an upcoming Parliament session, expected to take place in May. This bill was opposed by several parties, including opposition parties. The Singapore Democratic Party, the Reform Party, and the Singapore Progress Party assess that elections amid a pandemic will exacerbate an already dangerous situation (Singh 2020). Bilver Singh, Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore even views the Singapore Government’s plan to hold elections in the middle of a pandemic as a political step to secure parliamentary seats. The reason is that the People’s Act Party (PAP) government is proven capable of handling the plague (Singh, April 2).

 

The Philippines

The war against Covid-19 in the Philippines led to a ban on going out in the Philippines. As a result, voter registration activities were postponed until April 30. This delay has been extended twice, namely until March 30, then April 14 (Interview with Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LeNTE) Executive Director, Rona Ann V. Caritos via Whats App (4/15).

Rona also reported that Covid-19 also led to the issuance of the Anti-Hoaxes Act relating to Covid-19. Civil society in the Philippines assesses that this regulation harms freedom of speech and prevents citizens from obtaining information.

The Anti-Hoaxes Act stipulates a sentence of two months in prison or a fine of P 10,000 to P 1 million, or both. This applies to individuals or groups who create, defend, or spread false information about the Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms (GMA News Online, April 1).

 

Malaysia

In Malaysia, the electoral reform agenda was delayed due to a ban on holding activities outside the home until April 28 (Aseanbriefing.com). There is not much discussion about democracy and electoral reform in Malaysia. The government and civil society focus their attention on handling Covid-19.

Information obtained from Malaysia Kini senior journalist, Zikhri Kamarul Zaman, the Malaysian Government is discussing an economic stimulus package. Fortunately, unlike in Indonesia where the Indonesian Parliament discusses controversial bills or is widely opposed by the public, there is no such discussion by the Malaysian parliament (Zikhri’s interview via Whats App (4/15).

The final draft of Election Reform recommendations prepared by the Election Reform Committee (ERC) is scheduled for completion in July 2020 (Interview with Chair of Bersih 2.0, Thomas Fann via Whats App (3/19). But from the news in Malaysia online media, it seems that the change of prime minister Mahathir Mohammad which promising electoral reforms for political justice in his country, made it difficult for the Malaysian Electoral Reform process. Mahathir is now replaced by Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, President of the Malaysian Indigenous Unity Party (Bersatu), and forming a National Alliance government (Tempo.co, March 12).

 

Thailand

As applied in all countries, physical distancing and the prohibition to gather in large numbers also occur in Thailand. In the Land of White Elephants curfew is imposed where everyone is prohibited from leaving the house from 10 pm to 4 am from April 3. (Bangkokpost.com, April 15).

Unfortunately for civil society, Covid-19 broke out when disillusionment with the Government and the Constitutional Court which dismissed the opposition Future Forward Party in January 2020 had not yet been resolved. Various student and civil demonstrations were forced to recede in order to restore public health (Bangkokpost.com, April 1).

Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia also highlights the issue of freedom of speech in Thailand. The Anti-Fake News Act that existed before Covid-19 outbreak was infectious especially when it was used during a pandemic emergency. This law is even used for people who express criticism of the Thai Government which is considered slow in handling Covid-19. Recorded by HRW Asia, some medical staff who complained about the shortage of medical equipment in hospitals in Thailand experienced termination of employment and revocation of licenses. Legal action and intimidation was also faced by a journalist who reported suspected corruption in surgical masks and other health supplies (Hrw.org, March 25)

 

Myanmar

Myanmar has scheduled elections in November 2020. However, since the emergence of the Covid-19 case for the first time on March 23, a discourse on the postponement and acceleration of elections has surfaced (Irawaddy.com, April 1). Apart from the pros and cons, The Union Election Commission (UEC) has drawn up plans for organizing elections with a special protocol, so that the electoral stage does not cause the spread of Covid-19 outbreak in election organizers, election participants, and voters (Elevenmyanmar.com, March 22).

As reported in the online media, civil society and political parties in Myanmar are worried that elections will most likely be held amid Covid-19 pandemics. Not only because of the technical problems of the election and the consideration of the quality of the elections being threatened, but also the politicization of the handling of Covid-19 by the military junta who gained great authority (Bangkokpost.com, April 1).

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s effective head of state, Aung San Suu Kyi, is seen to underestimate the impact of Covid-19 on the continued decline in public health and the economy. Instead she continued her campaign activities ahead of the election to win the National League for Democracy Party in parliament (Thediplomat.com, April 14). As is known, the Su Kyi Party has a constitutional amendment agenda to abolish 25 percent of military seats in parliament. 75 seats are needed to pass the agenda (Bangkokpost.com, April 1).

In addition to the possibility of holding elections with a special protocol, Covid-19 also delayed the peace process between the Government of Myanmar and the Union Panglong. Initially, a meeting to discuss the Panglong Conference would be held in April or May, but amid uncertain conditions in Covid-19, there was no replacement date for the peace agenda (Frontiermyanmar.net, April 15).

 

Cambodia

There are no electoral stages in Cambodia, but Covid-19 has tightened restrictions on public communication. Reported by several online media such as The Diplomat, Khmer Times, Bangkok Post, and HRW organizations, Article 222 of the Cambodian constitution as a basis for establishing emergency conditions has led to the arrest of civilians and opposition activists for expressing their concerns about Covid-19 on social media.

State of emergency in handling Covid-19 was also addressed by the Government by enacting The State Emergency Law on March 31. In it there are rules that allow the Government to monitor and track citizens’ means of communication, as well as the prohibition or restriction of the distribution or broadcast of information which is considered to cause public concern or fear, cause unrest, cause damage to national security, or cause confusion regarding emergencies (Hrw.org, April 2).

 

Concerning the Election Continuation

From the information of those countries, there are three countries that are holding the election stage or are in the election year in 2020. These three countries are Singapore, Indonesia, and Myanmar. In its dynamics, those who want the continuation of elections in the pandemic are based on domestic political considerations and avoid vacancies that result in a temporary acting with limited authority. While those who pushed the government to postpone the election argued that elections carried out during the pandemic could potentially threaten health (even lives) and reduce the quality of elections.

Stakeholders in Indonesia are trying to study the attitude of South Korea that continues to hold elections. It was concluded, the South Korean elections in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic was a complex phenomenon. Elections with the Covid-19 protocol require the procurement of logistics such as masks, disposable gloves, hand sanitizers and face shields for election organizers at polling stations. The logistics have consequences for increasing the budget. In addition, the need for a large polling station location to ensure safe distance between voters must also be met. This complexity is compounded by the strong commitment of citizens to discipline to keep their distance and protect themselves from Covid-19 in participating in elections.

There are 13 free and fair election standards according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). One of them is that voters are able to vote freely without interference, fear, improper influence, bribery, or intimidation. During the pandemic, Covid-19 transmission could be categorized as a threat that could make voters afraid to vote. Thus, the holding of elections in the middle of Covid-19 must be able to provide a protocol for holding elections that are safe from the transmission of Covid-19, so that the protocol is able to convince voters to vote.

The Covid-19 protocol in organizing elections must also pay attention to the availability of the existing legal framework. South Korea’s experience can be a lesson for countries in Southeast Asia who are discussing whether or not the electoral stage is in the middle of a pandemic.

International IDEA’s Senior Program Manager, Adhy Aman, outlines six factors for the success of the South Korean elections, which must serve as benchmarks for organizing elections during the Covid-19 period. These six factors are:

  1. Sufficient electoral legal framework.
  2. Adequate budget and timely logistic
  3. There is trust in the election organizers to hold safe election
  4. Supporting political conditions
  5. Intensive communication and delivery of information about the holding of election in the midst of pandemic
  6. transparency of the electoral process using information technology.

Executive Director of the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem), Titi Anggraini, believes that the responsibility and commitment of a strong and fast government as well as South Korean politicians are also important to be a concern. Do not let the government and politicians lose even less responsibility and commitment by underestimating the situation.

 

Concerning the Quality of Democracy

The Covid-19 pandemic also emphasized the state of a country’s authoritarian government. Concluding the various parties that measure democracy such as The Economist, Freedom House, or International IDEA, many countries experience a downward trend in the quality of democracy, including in Southeast Asia. The decline in quality is one of them related to the increase in regulations and policies that threaten freedom.

From all the information of the countries in this paper, almost all countries experience governments that are increasingly assertive in showing authoritarianism. Governments in Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand, in the name of the emergency situation of Covid-19 made arbitrary policies. Arbitrary government of a number of countries is in harmony with the deteriorating quality of democracy before Covid-19. The Covid-19 pandemic seems to be an affirmation of the quality of an undemocratic government.

Freedom and access to information for citizens is more threatened precisely because of government policies. Indonesia with various Perpu and the determination of the status of civil emergency accompanied the arrest of citizens who criticized the government. Thailand with an Anti-Fake News Act. Philippines with the Anti-Hoaxes Act. Myanmar with the politicization of handling Covid-19 by a military junta that has great authority. Cambodia with the State Emergency Law.

The Indonesian government has one attitude which further worsens the quality of Indonesia’s democracy. Instead of guaranteeing the maintenance of public rights during the Covid-1 pandemic, the political elite in the government used the situation to maintain or expand its power. The direct election of regional heads is to be changed by way of voting through the local parliament (DPRD). Closest to the Covid-19 context, there are 270 regions whose elections are in September 2020.

We should not damage our commitment to democracy and be weakened because of the disaster or the pandemic outbreak of Covid-2019. It is a pity if the government or politicians use languages that appear to be oriented to the interests of overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic but instead to further maintain power. In the Election Law, direct election of regional heads is firm and does not hamper. What is empty and closes the implementation of the 2020 elections is a matter of schedule and authority to postpone and continue the election. []

 

AMALIA SALABI

USEP HASAN SADIKIN

 

References:

Aseanbriefing.com. The latest news on Covid-19 cases in https://www.aseanbriefing.com/news/coronavirus-asia-asean-live-updates-by-country/

Asiaone.com. April 16. Election during a pandemic: Can Singapore replicate South Korea’s model?. News in https://www.asiaone.com/singapore/election-during-pandemic-can-singapore-replicate-south-koreas-model

Bangkokpost.com. April 1. Coronavirus and democracy in Southeast Asia. Special coverage in https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1890655/coronavirus-and-democracy-in-southeast-asia.

Bangkokpost.com. April 15. S&P revises Thailand’s ratings to stable on Covid-19 jitters. News in https://www.bangkokpost.com/business/1899975/sp-revises-thailands-ratings-to-stable-on-covid-19-jitters

BBC.com. January 1. Lima tantangan menunggu Myanmar pada tahun 2020. Special coverage in https://www.bbc.com/burmese/in-depth-50943057

Channelnewsasia.com. April 7. Bill to allow special arrangements for General Election during COVID-19 outbreak introduced in Parliament. Special coverage in https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/bill-special-arrangements-general-election-covid19-outbreak-12616864.

Elevenmyanmar.com. March 22. More attention should be paid to COVID-19 rather than election: political parties. News in https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/more-attention-should-be-paid-to-covid-19-rather-than-election-political-parties.

Frontiermyanmar.net. April 15. From north to south, ethnic armies confront an unseen enemy. Special coverage in https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/from-north-to-south-ethnic-armies-confront-an-unseen-enemy.

GMA News Online. April 1. Digital rights advocates seek repeal of Bayanihan law provision punishing “fake news” peddlers. News in https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/732226/digital-rights-advocates-seek-repeal-of-bayanihan-law-provision-punishing-ldquo-fake-news-rdquo-peddlers/story/.

Hrw.org. March 25. Thailand: COVID-19 Clampdown on Free Speech. Special coverage in https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/25/thailand-covid-19-clampdown-free-speech.

Hrw.org. April 2. Cambodia: Emergency Bill Recipe for Dictatorship. News in https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/02/cambodia-emergency-bill-recipe-dictatorship.

Irawaddy.com, April 1. Poor to Bear Brunt of Impact as COVID-19 Slows Myanmar’s Economy: World Bank. News in  https://www.irrawaddy.com/specials/myanmar-covid-19/poor-bear-brunt-impact-covid-19-slows-myanmars-economy-world-bank.html.

Khmer Times. April 18. Emergency Law ‘will not violate human rights’. News in https://www.khmertimeskh.com/50714567/emergency-law-will-not-violate-human-rights/.

Malaysiakini.com. April 7. S’pore proposes law to ensure safe elections during virus outbreak. News in https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/519255.

Singh, Bilveer. April 2. Singapore’s COVID-19 General Elections. Opinion in https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/singapores-covid-19-general-elections/.

Straitstimes.com. April 8. Bill to provide for voters, candidates affected by Covid-19. News in https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/bill-to-provide-for-voters-candidates-affected-by-covid-19

Tempo.com. March 12. PM Malaysia Muhyiddin Yasin Minta Maaf ke Mahathir. News in https://dunia.tempo.co/read/1318713/pm-malaysia-muhyiddin-yassin-minta-maaf-ke-mahathir/full&view=ok

Thediplomat.com. March 28. Myanmar Braces for Coronavirus Outbreak. Special coverage in https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/myanmar-braces-for-coronavirus-outbreak/

Thediplomat.com. April 17. Cambodia’s Lost Digital Opportunity in the COVID-19 Fight. News in https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/cambodias-lost-digital-opportunity-in-the-covid-19-fight/.

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