Votes in the bag? The noken system and conflict in Indonesian Papua

A barefoot Papuan tribes woman fills her ballot at a polling center Jayapura in eastern Papua province on July 8, 2009. AFP PHOTO/BANJIR AMBARITA

A barefoot Papuan tribes woman fills her ballot at a polling center Jayapura in eastern Papua province on July 8, 2009. AFP PHOTO/BANJIR AMBARITA

Indonesia’s system of direct local elections remains relatively young and in flux. Since their introduction in 2005, a number of changes at national level have broadly sought to strengthen the role of elections commissions in administering elections; results have been mixed. The system remains under review, with some in government even pushing to roll back direct local polls. A practice of voting by consensus, customary in some areas of the Papuan highlands, is one anomaly that deserves greater attention. Known colloquially as the noken system after the traditional bag made from bark that highlanders carry, its application varies and it is not covered by either national or provincial electoral regulations. Noken involves the divvying up of votes at village level by community members through consensus. Traditionally, voters may have placed these votes in a noken bag. A case brought to Indonesia’s Constitutional Court by a losing pair of candidates in the Puncak Jaya district has highlighted the problems with this system and underlined the broader issue of weak government in the easternmost province.

In our recent report, Indonesia: Dynamics of Violence in Papua, we looked at how one factor that can play a role in putting the brakes on conflict in Indonesia—strong local government—is largely absent in Papua, the country’s most violent province. There is much frustration among Papuans about the failure of the 2001 special autonomy law, which many had hoped would strengthen their role in local decision-making. But in the absence of a coordinated strategy or good faith effort by either Jakarta or provincial lawmakers in Jayapura to strengthen special autonomy, the cause has provided cover for a number of self-interested ploys by local politicians.

The election of a new governor has been held up for more than a year as a dispute continues over the role of the provincial assembly (DPR Papua) in organising a new election. One group of Papuan lawmakers argued that they deserve a role in the vetting of candidates (a role not given to provincial assemblies elsewhere). Spearheaded by members of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, headed in the province by Lukas Enembe, who intends to run for governor, the initiative seems chiefly an attempt to block the candidacy of the incumbent, Bas Suebu, whose term ended last year, and who narrowly beat Enembe in 2006. They have since argued that the issue is the last stand in a battle to maintain the viability of Papua’s special autonomy–that if their arguments are struck down, even moderate Papuans will be driven towards support for independence. These claims are disingenuous at best as they ignore the reality that one major obstacle to implementation of special autonomy has been the failure of DPR Papua members to draft the necessary provincial regulations.

Late last year, members of the DPR Papua drafted and approved a provincial regulation giving them a vetting role, drawing on a patchwork of national laws and regulations over the past decade they say support their case. Others, including the provincial elections commission (KPU Papua) do not agree. They point to national laws that have since strengthened the role of the elections commissions in administering elections and that supersede the earlier regulations. The ministry of home affairs, which reviews provincial legislation, threw up its hands over the issue in April following months of strained negotiations, assenting to the DPR Papua’s vetting role. The elections commission then took the provincial assembly to the Constitutional Court claiming the assembly had illegally usurped its role. The court is still deliberating over the case, but issued a provisional order on 19 July that freezes any further steps in the election until it reaches a final decision.

Looking ahead to the election, Enembe’s supporters have also spoken of the need to respect local wisdom and traditions (kearifan lokal) in the holding of the election. They say this is particularly important given a string of district-level elections in Papua in the past two years that have either been deferred or postponed indefinitely due to violence.

But elections held in one district earlier this year provide an example of the dangers of applying local traditions when paired with weak enforcement of electoral regulations. Puncak Jaya, a district (kabupaten) set in the central highlands of Papua, held local elections on 28 May 2012 to replace the district head (bupati) Lukas Enembe, the gubernatorial contender. There were two leading contenders to take over the post: Enembe’s deputy Henok Ibo and a local assembly member named Agus Kogoya. The problem arose over the use of the noken system and the failure to keep even basic records of how the communities voted.

Any consensus-based voting system raises questions over the extent to which it upholds individual rights to vote and to the privacy of voting decisions, as Indonesian and international law requires. It also leaves the system vulnerable to both fraud and intimidation. As detailed in the case, in one sub-district no individual ballots were punched, and no record kept of how votes were awarded at village or even sub-district level. Instead, an agreement was reached that “all 14,394 votes from the people of Mewoluk sub-district [would] be given to the candidate pair that wins overall”. But many of the witnesses called before the court had different recollections of how the villagers had voted, and the parties differed on what an “overall” win signified. Kogoya’s supporters interpreted it to mean the votes would go to whichever candidate won at district level (where they believe they received the most votes), while the district elections commission ultimately awarded it to the incumbents, who had the most votes in the sub-district.

The confusion led to real tension in the district capital, Mulia, in the days before results were announced. Supporters of all the candidates gathered en masse in front of the elections commission office, and the police apparently came to the conclusion that they could not ensure the commission’s security amid alleged intimidation by Kogoya’s supporters. Once “thousands” had gathered, the Puncak Jaya police chief decided the only option was for the commission to be evacuated from the highland district.

The counting of votes by the commission took place instead in the island district of Biak (two hops away by plane), which only increased suspicions over the potential for fraud. All 14,394 votes from Mewoluk were awarded to the incumbent Ibo, based on the commission’s understanding that he had received the most votes in the subdistrict and thus, under the terms of the agreement, should be awarded them all. This proved significant to the overall tally: without the Mewoluk votes, Ibo would have lost to Kogoya.

Following the announcement of results, Kogoya filed suit against the local elections commission (KPUD), claiming they had improperly favoured the incumbents in the administration of the election. The court accepted the complaint and on 7 July ordered the election to be re-held in the six villages of Mewoluk within 90 days.

The noken practice has been upheld by the Constitutional Court in at least three cases. Each time the Court has argued it must balance the violation of the right to an individual and secret ballot with constitutional provisions upholding customary adat law. In 2009, the judges wrote in a case in Yahukimo district that “if forced to hold an election using the laws in effect, there is a concern that conflict could arise between community groups. The court is of the opinion that it is preferable for [the communities] not to be involved in [or] moved towards a system of competition [or] splits within and between groups that could disturb the harmony that they have otherwise preserved.”

But the Puncak Jaya dispute reveals the vulnerability of the system to significant abuse; it also calls into question the logic of affirming the practice of voting by acclamation in an effort to prevent conflict. Problems in this and other local elections in Papua have come not from inescapable cultural differences but from inconsistent application of electoral regulations.

Noken looks likely to be used in large parts of the highlands in the upcoming gubernatorial elections. While it may be too late to draft and approve specific regulations on how to accommodate this form of voting in time for the polls, stepping up voter education efforts should be a priority for the provincial KPU, with guidelines on minimum standards for polling station records. Clearer regulations should then be drafted as soon as possible, in advance of future rounds of local elections.

Much remains to be done to make Papua’s special autonomy regime function as its supporters once hoped. Rather than allowing the issue to be held hostage to electoral politics, a more coordinated approach between the central government and Papuan politicians to addressing the weaknesses would be far more constructive. This should be a priority for Papua’s next governor—once an election is finally held.