On 17 April 2019, for the first time in Indonesia’s history, presidential, parliamentary, and regional elections took place at the same time—spread across five different ballot boxes. Some 800,000 polling stations were set up across the country and over seven million workers were drafted in to oversee the voting process. It was one of the most complex single day ballots in global history.
The election was hailed as a massive logistical success shortly after the polls closed, but in the days that followed news started to trickle in of suspicious deaths of those who had helped to pull off this Herculean feat. It was at first thought that 90 workers had lost their lives, only for the number to rise to 270, and then to over 320. As the tone of the electoral coverage started to transform, many wondered if the death toll was just a coincidence—given the millions involved in facilitating election day.
This is not an attempt to answer the question of why and how these people died. Nor to try and prove a link to their deaths and the election. It would be impossible to do so.
Instead, it’s an effort to provide some context to the mammoth task that unfolded on polling day, and put forth the testimony of some of the people involved in both past and present elections in Indonesia.
Death of an election worker
On 17 April 2019, 45-year-old Zulkifli Salamuddin made his way to the TPS 43 Polling Station in Medan, North Sumatra at 7am sharp. It was his first time working as a paid volunteer on election day and he was nervous about doing a good job. Bang Zul, as he was better known, worked as a Grab driver and had agreed to work at a polling station near his home to make a bit of extra cash—Rp 500,000 to be exact, or US$35.
As far as he knew, his jobs were to check the names of the registered voters against the ballot papers and then tabulate the votes once polling closed. But he had good reason to be worried about the tasks ahead of him, not just because of the size of the election, but also because he hadn’t received any formal training.
The rationale behind recruiting members of the general public to man polling stations in Indonesia is varied. One of the reasons is the sheer scale. It’s also thought that civilians, as opposed to a workforce made up entirely of civil servants or members of the General Elections Commission, make more objective participants and are more neutral about the process, even though they, like anyone else, will have their own voting preferences.
Bang Zul’s wife, Sri Erwina Lubis, saw him sporadically throughout the day; at prayer times he went to the local mosque and briefly returned home for lunch or dinner before going back to the polling station. At one point he’d told her that there was one extra vote that no one could account for in a ballot box; it was causing all sorts of problems for those trying to track the results. He finally came home at around 5am the next day. He hadn’t slept for almost 24 hours.
The next day, Bang Zul seemed lethargic. He had a history of high cholesterol, but no other prior health issues and had never complained of chest pains. But he was out of sorts and asked his wife to massage his back, which he said had been hurting him ever since he worked at TPS 43.
On 19 April the couple had to attend a christening not far from their house. Bang Zul was still feeling under the weather and hadn’t wanted to go. But at 10am he forced himself out of the house, returning with Erwina a couple of hours later. Erwina went to the bathroom and, when she came out, she saw that her husband was in trouble.
“Why does it hurt?” Bang Zul screamed at her, writhing on the floor. Then he began to recite the Quran. Erwina didn’t know what to do, so she tried to make him sit up and have a drink of water. He tried to swallow a mouthful as she raised the glass to his lips, then vomited it back up. He could no longer speak, and started foaming at the mouth.
Erwina ran to her neighbour’s house for help. But he was gone. It must have taken about 10 minutes from the moment he first complained of chest pains for Bang Zul to die.
His wife and a few neighbours managed to get him in a car and drive him to a local hospital where doctors tried to revive him by doing chest compressions. It was too late. “We tried our best, but we couldn’t help him,” they told Erwina apologetically, before writing “Dead on Arrival” on his death certificate.
There is no mention of his heart on the document. It had just inexplicably stopped.
Dealing with grief
New Naratif meets Erwina on her first day back at work since her husband’s premature passing. It’s a particularly hard time.
“Every morning when I went to work, he would kiss me before I left,” she says. “Now he’s not there. I’ll remember him every morning.”
She’s understandably still confused about the chain of events that led to her husband collapsing and dying in front of her. “I think he died at home,” she says, “But I didn’t want to believe it at the time.”
Even though the cause of her husband’s death wasn’t clear, Erwina didn’t want to request an autopsy. “I felt too sorry for him,” she says. “His heart had already stopped when we got there and it would have made me too sad.”
“Every morning when I went to work, he would kiss me before I left. Now he’s not there. I’ll remember him every morning”
But then talk turns to what may have gone wrong and why over 300 other victims (that we know about) also appear to have died suddenly after working at polling stations scattered across the archipelago. “Something is wrong here. Something needs to change. After all, we’re not just talking about one victim,” says Erwina.
Erwina was visited by several members of Indonesia’s General Elections Commission following her husband’s death, who came to offer their respects and raise the idea of potential compensation. Asked how she feels about that, she’s pragmatic enough to point out that she has three children who still need to be put through school. But she’s also trying to accept what has befallen her. “Maybe it was just his fate, his time,” she adds.
She’s also clear that working at the polling station had been Bang Zul’s own choice. “I think he died because he was just too tired,” Erwina says. “He hadn’t had any sleep and he pushed himself to keep working. But he wasn’t forced by anyone. He did it himself.”
In accordance with Islamic practice, Bang Zul was brought home and laid out in a front room so that his family and friends could pay their last respects. “Our seven-year-old son kept asking me ‘why is Ayah [father] sleeping?’” Erwina says.
“It was tantamount to mental intimidation”
The physical effects of working on election day, which saw an estimated turnout of 80% of some 193 million registered voters, are obvious. But less has been said about the psychological pressure many workers also faced.
Putra worked as a paid volunteer in 2014 when the previous presidential election took place. It was much smaller in scale back then as there hadn’t been as many ballot boxes, but he still wasn’t keen to repeat the experience this year.
“To understand why the pressure is so immense you need to understand the process,” he tells New Naratif. “Once the ballot boxes close at 1pm, you need to count the votes as quickly as possible in front of other witnesses. Often this means a crowd of supporters who support different candidates and it’s so stressful. If you make a mistake and call out the wrong name, or lose your concentration for just a second, then the crowd can go wild and accuse you of deliberately trying to tamper with the results.”
Putra goes on to say that this fear was compounded this year as candidates, most notably presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto, had floated theories before the election even took place that the vote would be rigged and that they would file for a recount if they lost. Hoax stories floated about on social media of various nefarious plans to tamper with ballot papers. Real news stories such as a box of ballot papers in favour of incumbent candidate Jokowi being found in Malaysia did nothing but fuel the paranoia.
“When you count the votes you can literally get caught up in a war between the supporters of each candidate,” adds Putra, holding up a piece of paper to demonstrate the process to New Naratif and explain the difficulties.
“If you open the ballot paper and declare it a vote for one candidiate, the other candidates’ supporters will often start to query it, saying they can see a mark by their candidate’s name instead.”
Putra goes on to say that amalgamating all the different ballot boxes for the elections in 2019 was meant to make the process more effective and efficient. But it actually had the opposite effect of handing polling booth workers a huge workload, coupled with the psychological torment of being accused of underhand vote-rigging tactics by supporters who’d been whipped into a frenzy by their respective candidates before they even went to the polls.
“It was tantamount to mental intimidation,” Putra adds.
Compensation and acceptance
It’s almost two weeks after the election when New Naratif meets Pak Yulhasni, the Head of the General Elections Commission for North Sumatra. He looks both weary and visibly shaken. It’s little wonder—he’s just received word that another two election workers from North Sumatra have died, bringing the total number to 10. They come from all over the province: Medan, Deli Serdang, Tebing Tinggi, Langkat, Simalungun, Mandailing Natal, Dairi, Medan Selayang and Labuhan Batu. The only link between the victims is that they all worked on election day.
“The workers at the polling stations were given an extraordinary amount of responsibility,” says Yulhasni, shaking his head. “Because of the volume of work, they couldn’t have breaks. Problem.” He seems genuinely upset about the loss of life at the polls across Indonesia, and describes the election workers, rather unfortunately, as, “the beating heart of the election.”
Across Indonesia, elections are regulated by Law Number 7 of 2017 (UU Pemilu) which was first drafted in 2012 and passed in 2016 ahead of the planned simultaneous elections in 2019. The law set out the rules for the election, but it was overseen by the General Elections Commission, a legally independent government body charged with organisation and logistics.
In Yulhasni’s telling, the Commission was shackled by the law, which stipulated that elections at so many different levels had to take place on one day. He says it was done for cost reasons—especially since there were anticipated issues with this approach from the outset. “We did a simulation at the time of the gubernatorial elections in North Sumatra [in 2018] and saw that there was a problem,” he says. “The simulation was done by people who had experience and they still needed five minutes to count one vote.”
Multiply that by millions of voters casting five different ballots each on 17 April, and the scale of the task is obvious. “They never imagined what they were signing up for,” Yulhasni adds of workers like Bang Zul. He also says that he hopes that there will not be a repeat of the massive simultaneous elections of 2019, and that lessons will be learnt for 2024.
One might expect Yulhasni to try and absolve himself of any responsibility. Instead he does the exact opposite. When asked who needs to be responsible for the rising death toll, his answer is unequivocal.
“Of course, the General Elections Commission.”
It’s a staggering admission, considering how hard it is to prove that the deceased died as a direct result of overwork on election day. But Yulhasni is dismissive of trying to fudge the issue. “It doesn’t matter if they were already sick or not. Even if they had prior health problems, the heavy workload would have definitely also had an effect,” he says.
It seems he’s not the only one willing to take the blame. He scrolls through his phone to show New Naratif the compensation package that has been put forward by the government and approved by Finance Minister Sri Mulyani. Rp 36,000,000 (US$2,533) for the families of those who died; Rp 30,000,000 (US$2,111) for those incapacitated; Rp 16,500,000 (US$1,161) for the heavily wounded; Rp 8,250,000 (US$581) for light injuries.
Whether the compensation will go some way to healing families who lost their loved ones isn’t clear, but it’s at least a gesture that admits some burden of responsibility. Yulhasni tells New Naratif that compensation is likely to be allocated to the victims’ families after the final vote is tallied and declared on 22 May.
“The process needs to be corrected next time around and the workers given clear tasks from the outset”
Until then, and probably forever, questions will continue to swirl about exactly what happened to the workers, and whether their deaths can be solely attributed to overwork and fatal exhaustion after one of the largest single ballots the world has ever seen.
For Erwina, apportioning blame doesn’t really matter. Bang Zul is dead, and perhaps might still be alive if he hadn’t gone to work at TPS 43. But while her husband’s death remains a mystery, other things are abundantly clear.
“The process needs to be corrected next time around and the workers given clear tasks from the outset,” she says. “They were traumatised before they even started and terrified of making a mistake. So they worked at maximum capacity.”
“We never thought my husband’s heart was a problem,” she continues. “But maybe his body just wasn’t strong enough to survive election day.”
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Deputy Editor. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.