Opinion | Right to vote or not to vote, both fundamental freedoms

Indonesia President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo walks with other leaders after the gala dinner family photo at the APEC summit at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN) – At the end of the day, no one, not even the state, should force people to choose their leaders.

The political climate in the country is heating up with the presidential election only three months away. As in other democracies, voters here are torn between two popular candidates, which in Indonesia’s case are the incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto.

Statistics show that decided supporters of President Jokowi and Prabowo make up the most of the voters, who number about 190 million. Naturally, in elections, there is a third group, the members of which for certain reasons decide to abstain from voting.

In Indonesia, this group is called “golput”, short for golongan putih (white group). It is a group that does not stand with any political party colour.

The golput are different from people whose votes are invalid or spoiled on purpose. In the latter case, people still turn up to polling stations to cast their votes but decide to spoil their ballots. They may share the reasons of thegolput but take a different approach.

While invalid votes still contribute to voter turnout, poll abstention adversely impacts the voter turnout, hence the legitimacy of an election. A low voter turnout can lead to distrust in election results and therefore in the elected government. Every democracy has a different threshold, but ideally, voter turnout should not be lower than 50 percent.

Not all democracies or quasi-democracies acknowledge their citizens’ right to not vote. Thailand, for example, bans poll abstention. Any citizen who is found to give an election a miss is blacklisted from employment in government posts.

In Cambodia, voting is not compulsory but in the country’s last election the incumbent government sought every path to avoid a low voter turnout in the wake of the opposition’s campaign for abstention.

Both Thailand and Cambodia are moving toward dictatorship. Thailand is led by yet another military junta while in Cambodia the incumbent president has been dubbed one of the longest dictators in power following last year’s election.

The United States is a democracy with a low voter turnout. Only 56 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election that Donald Trump won. Many say the high rate of poll abstention helped Trump assume power, which is not completely right because the turnout rate has been consistently low over the past several decades.

Learning from the US (and Brazil too), many in Indonesia have called for participation in the April general elections to prevent “the bad candidate” from getting elected. Hence they advise people to vote for the lesser evil.

But what if there is no “good” candidate according to voters’ standards? Should they have to choose a candidate even if they do not like or agree with either of their views?

Recently, the media have reported a rise in the number of golput, which is said would make a bad impact on Jokowi’s bid for reelection. In the 2014 election voters participated enthusiastically and that resulted in Jokowi’s victory over Prabowo, who had to deal with a checkered past linked to human rights violations.

This time around, many have deemed that Jokowi has made no difference. Like Prabowo, Jokowi is seen as not promoting human rights.

During his four years in tenure, people who insulted him or his family have been jailed, so have those who fought for their land; many say he failed to keep his promise to deliver justice to the families of victims of state-sponsored abuse in the late 1990s and let the police, prosecutors and other groups seize and burn books and suppress academic freedom and the rights of marginalized groups.

Poll abstention rates in Indonesian elections have been on the rise in the last 15 years, from 23 percent in the 2004 presidential election to 29 percent in 2009 and 30 percent in 2014.

Democracy is based on — even defined by — political participation of citizens. The right to vote for democratic representation, without discrimination, is rightly seen as a fundamental civil freedom.

Political scientist Lisa Hill said in 2015 that she believes the alleged right not to vote cannot be formally recognized because it cannot be universalized. Doing so would undermine the form of government for which it exists: democracy, a collective benefit.

There should be no formal legal or moral recognition of the “right not to vote”. Many citizens in voluntary-voting settings would continue to abstain from voting as it suits them, but their abstention would not — and should not — constitute the exercise of any particular right, she says.

Similarly, if individuals have rights not to vote, it would be unjust to force them to do so, even if it improved democracy. Nonetheless, if there was such a right, this would be an important — perhaps decisive — objection to compulsory voting, scholar Ben Saunders insisted in 2018.

High turnout would be meaningless if the number of spoiled ballots is also high because of political motives if voters just don’t have anyone to choose. Likewise, a candidate who wins because voters are forced to choose him or her would lack legitimacy.

At the end of the day, no one, not even the state, should force people to choose their leaders. Even the worst election system cannot compel people’s choices inside the ballot box, but there is no need to formalize the right not to vote either. A conceptual agreement is that the right not to vote is always part of, or inferred by, the right to vote.

By Aulina Adamy | The writer is a lecturer at the University of Muhammadiyah Aceh. She served as an international observer and electoral analyst for the Asian Network for Free Elections Foundation.