Tribal Leaders, Not Individuals, Will Shape the Election in Papua

In remote villages in Papua, some Indonesians won't get to cast their vote on election day as tribal leaders represent them in a practice called 'noken'.
April 15, 2019, 5:54am
Members of a Papuan tribe
Members of a Papuan tribe in Pegunungan Tengah. Photo by Frans Hubby via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on VICE Indonesia

Hearing Julio Reinner Lambert Pussung talk about this year’s presidential election, you’d think that he’s just one of the 63 million young Indonesian voters whose voice will determine the country’s future.

As a second-time voter, Julio’s done his homework of reading up on the two candidates, something he didn’t do before he cast his vote five years ago. But the 24-year-old from Tembagapura, a mountainous district in West Papua, will not go to a polling station to vote and stain one of his little fingers with purple ink afterwards as many voters will this week. Voting, for him, looks very different.


What’s called the noken system has been practised since the first election in Papua province in 1971. The noken system can be carried out in two different ways: in one, each voter hands his or her ballot to a tribal leader, who in turn will collect everything in a traditional Papuan woven bag. In the other, a tribal leader chooses a presidential candidate on behalf of all the eligible voters in his village. Either way, a tribal leader has the final say on the votes of his people, and the system is extremely vulnerable to money politics or bribery.

The system was born to accommodate voters in far-flung places where General Elections Commission (KPU) can’t distribute ballot boxes. At the same time, the system is considered an undemocratic practice because one’s vote is no longer a secret, and can be altered at any point by a village head or tribal leader because of lack of monitoring and regulation.


Beberapa mama di Papua sedang merajut tas noken dari kulit kayu. Foto oleh Keenan63/Wikimedia Commons. Lisensi CC 4.0

In the general election on April 17, 12 out of 29 districts in Papua will hold a noken-style election.

“The method is almost the same as in other regions, the only difference is that we don’t have a voting booth,” Julio told VICE. “Of course, our votes can influence others who still have no idea on who to vote for.”

For Julio, the practice doesn’t contradict the principles of democracy. After all, this is better than not being able to vote at all, in a way. But he told VICE that he wished there should be a better voting system in Papua.


“Voting is supposed to be done in secret, and that's not the case in this noken system,” Julio told VICE. “But we have no other choice. Papua has a very difficult terrain, and it complicates the distribution of electoral instruments. I also think that in general people in Papua has a culture where they depend on their traditions and tribal leaders.

“In my opinion as a young generation of Papua, there’s nothing wrong with using the noken system to collect votes. The important thing is that the people have sufficient knowledge of who the candidates are and what they have to offer.”

Unlike Julio, Jovi Prasditifitrah Ramadhana feels strongly against the noken system. The 25 year-old has seen two elections. He said he didn’t vote in 2014 because he was studying in Surabaya, East Java, and didn’t register to vote out of town.

“I think the system has no place in a democracy,” Jovi said. “It’s like buying votes through tribe leaders in each village. So before the election even begins, you can already tell which candidate has won the votes of a village, because the tribe leader represents the people.”

This year, Jovi won’t need the noken system at all. He’s from Jayapura, the capital city of the province, which has a better distribution of ballots. This means that a majority of the population doesn’t need the noken system. Plus, Jayapura’s regional government banned noken this year to avoid conflicts and corruption.

While the Indonesian Constitutional Court has declared the noken system to be legitimate, the KPU has never taken a clear stance on the issue. One one hand, the KPU announced that the noken system is fine as long as votes are recorded in a “clear” manner. On the other hand, it also stated plans to gradually phase out of the system.

The Committee on Elections and Democracy (Perludem) has noted that the noken system often triggers violence due to rivalry in money politics. According to the Perludem, in the last few regional elections, noken-related conflicts has taken as many as 71 lives in Papua.