This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia
You know those weird little rituals all Indonesians do that don't feel weird at all when you're here because everyone's done them, for like, forever? I mean rituals like throwing eggs at someone on their birthday. Or stepping on someone's new shoes so your old shoes could "befriend," their new ones? Then one day, out of the blue, ever catch yourself wondering "wait a minute, why are we doing this?"
I had one of those moments during a Southeast Asian Studies class at my Malaysian university. My Portuguese lecturer was telling the class about his experiences in my own country, when he suddenly said, "do you know they vote with construction nails down there? Like, they poke holes." The class went silent for a moment, turned to me, and then burst into laughter. "Oh, no!" I thought. This was an unforeseen surprise attack. I quickly tried to think of an excuse, or ngeles, the most Indonesian of strategies.
"Don't you people have pens?" a Kenyan friend of mine laughed. "Even in Africa we use pens!" I laughed too, like this wasn't a big deal at all, like I wasn't secretly preparing an excuse to explain away this seemingly bizarre behavior. But, honestly, I had no idea why we used nails.
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"It's more eco-friendly," I blurted out. "You know, pens are made from plastic. And you need to replace them a lot. Construction nails are durable. They're better for the environment."
I thought I had just given a somewhat sensible answer. Sure we used nails, because we cared about the environment. But my classmates weren't buying it. Instead, they kept laughing at me, like I was the one in charge of the KPU. Spoiler, I'm not. But I still went home and read up on what the hell we use nails to elect our leaders.
Turns out, this peculiar choice of voting tools has some pretty dark history (another spoiler: it has nothing to do with the environment). It all started, like so many of these stories do, with Suharto’s regime (hey, when you only had two presidents for like 53 years, a lot of stuff starts with one or the other of them).
Well, like all of you already know, Suharto's New Order regime was pretty authoritarian. Meaning it was just that, an authoritarian military government. But all authoritarian governments like to pretend they're democracies, so, of course, there were still elections. Even presidential ones. But only Suharto won. Anyone who dared to challenge him risked being kidnapped and subjected to some harsh questioning… or worse.
So for 32 years, Suharto won every election. Meanwhile the rest of us faced persecution and exile if we had the audacity to challenge his rule. This distorted version of democracy, naturally, distorted the elections as well. Between 1971 and 1997, only three Suharto-approved participated in the elections, the United Development Party (PPP), Democratic Party Indonesia (PDI), and Suharto's own elections winning machine, the Golkar Party.
That elections machine used a wide range of tools to make sure the votes always went one way. And one of their most-popular tools was the nail. Here's how: nails were the favored way to run an election in the New Order because they made it so easy to manipulate the polls. If someone voted against Golkar, all a pollster had to do was take a nail and poke a second hole, therefore invalidating the ballot entirely. It wasn't a vote for Golkar, but it wasn't a vote for anyone else either, so, of course, Golkar still won.
Our current Vice President Jusuf Kalla recently spoke out against this method of voting, calling it "uncivilized," in the past. But the nail lives on as a vital part of our elections system.
It's weird, but it's sort of like we're addicted to nails. Other countries have switched to electronic polling systems to cast and tally votes. But in Indonesia, we struggled to switch to pens. In 2004 and 2009, the government tried to use pens, but it didn't work out too well. And the rate of invalid votes skyrocketed during those years.
The government had to switch back from the check-mark to the hole poke to make the elections run smoother. At the time, the central government argued that too many people were illiterate, and therefore couldn't understand the check-mark system.
But today, adult illiteracy rates are nearly non-existent (below 1 percent), making that argument pretty much invalid. Yet, we still use nails. In 2014, they brought pens back, but said we had to use them to poke a hole. So someone bought pens, so we could use them like nails. Sometimes this stuff is so funny you can't help but laugh.
“We allow pens to be used for voting, in case the poll station ran out of nails," Hadar Gumay, a commissioner with the KPU, said at the time. "It’s OK as long as there is a hole in the correct place… But making holes with a cigarette is not allowed."
The real reason the 2004 and 2009 elections were so troubled was because people weren't given enough information about how to vote with a pen. Is it a check-mark? A circle? And where?
“We believe that there is insufficient socialization from KPU and political parties on how to cast a valid vote”, said Wirdyaningsih, a member of the elections supervisory commission Bawaslu.
I mean, people had voted with nails for decades, so of course a sudden change is going to require a bit of time to catch on.
We've just wrapped the regional elections, and the presidential race is right around the corner. I couldn't help but notice all the campaign flyers showing candidates' faces being poked with a nail. The flyers made me smile a bit. What would my classmates back in Malaysia think?
The thing is, we might not be ready for pens, but we were ready for democracy. Indonesia still has one of the strongest, and freest democracies in Asia, placing it well ahead of our regional neighbors, regardless of what they use to vote. And, at the end of the day, it's not how we select our leaders, but the fact that we actually do vote them into office, that matters most, isn't it?