The shabby headquarters of Indonesia’s general-election commission in central Jakarta is an unlikely bastion of democracy. But it is from here that the KPU, as it is known, will soon execute the world’s most complicated single-day election.
The logistical challenges are breathtaking. Six million election workers have been recruited and trained to oversee more than 810,000 polling stationsspread across hundreds of islands. The polling staff will travel by airplane, boat, and foot, from isolated mountain villages to tiny islets. Their mission is to ensure that Indonesia’s 193 million voters can freely and fairly select a president, parliamentarians, and local legislators.
The task of holding free and fair elections in a single day across a vast and diverse geographic expanse might seem to be merely procedural, yet it is crucial to the functioning of a democracy. It is a logistical feat that illustrates many of the oft-hidden processes that, beyond the simple act of casting ballots, underpin democratic societies. And it is one that many countries have struggled with.
This year alone, Nigeria and Afghanistan have been forced to delay their elections, because of logistical problems. In Thailand, the country’s military junta tilted the rule book for March elections in its favor, but its meddling did not stop there—allegations arose of widespread irregularities in the counting process, and the Thai election commission has now postponed the release of results until May, adding to the uncertainty. (India’s parliamentary elections, which are currently under way, are an accomplishment of another sort, organized over several weeks with an electorate nearly five times the size of Indonesia’s.)
Burdened by a long history of military rule, and an abortive attempt at electoral democracy in the 1950s, Indonesia’s voting system has been designed to make it hard to steal elections. The key to curbing manipulation is the large number of polling stations, each of which caters to only a few hundred voters, as well as the fact that initial counting takes place in the open.