Papua series: Traditional voting system may create conflict: Customary leaders

Look who I voted for: A woman in Woma district, Jayawijaya regency, holds her ballot up before placing it in a noken (traditional Papuan woven bag) in the January gubernatorial elections. (Antara/Rico)
Look who I voted for: A woman in Woma district, Jayawijaya regency, holds her ballot up before placing it in a noken (traditional Papuan woven bag) in the January gubernatorial elections. (Antara/Rico)

Papuans have been allowed to reject secrecy as one of the principles of general elections. The open-ballot system is permitted there, but customary leaders say the open election system as it stands in Papua today has no roots in tradition and could easily cause conflicts in the already restive province.

The heavily militarized province held its gubernatorial election on Jan. 29 using open ballots. Known as the noken system, its name is taken from the traditional woven bag that replaces the ballot box. During the election that saw Lukas Enembe and Klemen Tinal victorious, voters in Papua placed their ballots in one of several noken. The number of bags corresponds to the number of candidates. The bags are hung in the open for all to see.

“It’s a dangerous system,” Damianus Wetipo, a polling station official in Asolokobal, Jayawijaya said. He said that lack of secrecy meant that village or customary leaders were able to pressurize their people to vote according to his choice, and if there was any defiance, people could end up fighting each other.

The Constitutional Court (MK) recently rejected a lawsuit against Papua General Elections Commissions (KPUD) by five campaigns in the Papua gubernatorial race. They claimed that fraud had been widespread in the election and that the noken system was undemocratic.

Under the 2007 Law on General Elections, the principle of secrecy is part of elections, along with elections being direct, public, and free.  However, MK judges ruled that the noken system was not a violation, stating that it was part of the Papuan culture.

Traditionally decision-making in Papua has been a collective consensus, in which the tribal head can be a proxy for his tribe. The noken system was invented to translate this to modern election practice, where every citizen has suffrage. Each citizen is expected to place the ballot themselves.

The Papuan Indigenous Council (DAP) Baliem region head, Yulianus Hisage, said that the noken system was unknown to their tradition.

Damianus said that the noken itself was part of their culture but having people choose a bag to place a vote, to and thereby choose their leader, was not.

Damianus said that Papuans, many in rural and isolated areas, have been used to the ballot box in elections for a very long time. He recalls that the noken system was first used during the first free presidential election in 1999 after the New Order authoritarian era, but he was unsure of the reason for the change of system.

The village officials said that the system holds a huge potential for inciting conflict. In regency elections, Papuans can become fanatical and very belligerent in their support of their candidates.

Indeed, it is not just in the regency elections that violence can flare up. During the gubernatorial election the system took its toll. Tolikara regency councilor Husia Yosia Karoba from the Golkar Party was beaten to death by Democratic Party supporters, the winners of the election. Husia reportedly urged people to vote for the Golkar candidate.

The open system is not the only problem with Papua elections. The Democracy for Papua Alliance (ALDP) reported electoral fraud in the handling of leftover ballots. The fixed voter’s list was, they claim, higher than the actual number of voters. This challenge was echoed by five candidate pairs and went all the way to the Constitutional Court. The court explained that the number of eligible voters was based on a census by the Papua Population and Transmigration Office.

ALDP reported that in Hesatum village the number of ballots was around 300, while the actual village population was 138.

The village officials then confirmed the inflation of the voter list. Damianus knows all the people living in his village, but the names in the list included people from a neighboring village and those who had passed away. “Rocks and trees were given a name and put on the list,” he said jokingly.

The unused ballots were placed in Lukas and Klemen’s noken, who eventually won.

Village heads say they were pressurized to cheat as the regency has power over their positions. Moreover, defying the directives runs the risk of having their children unable to get jobs in government. Most educated indigenous Papuans look for jobs in the public service, which creates a dependency on the whims of political elites.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post | Reportage | Thu, March 28 2013

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