Indonesia elections

Papua's Elections Were a Tense, Confusing Mess and They're Still Not Over

Shootings, heavy security, and poor weather were only a few of the issues with the race for governor in Papua.

Indonesian voters hit the polls in more than 170 local elections on Wednesday in the third simultaneous regional elections to be held since the fall of Gen. Suharto's authoritarian regime. But in Indonesia's most-remote province, Papua, an election season marred by violence, fake ballots, and entrenched identity politics is far from over.

Vote tallies in the race for Papua's governor were still unknown on Thursday. Two districts haven't even cast their ballots yet after gunmen opened fire on a plane transporting election officials and security forces as it landed at Kenyam Airport, in Nduga district, on Monday killing three and injuring two others, including a small child.


The elections were delayed in Paniai as well. The district, a region in Papua's hardscrabble highlands located a mere 96 kilometers from the world's largest copper and gold mine, the US-owned Freeport Grasberg mine, postponed the election amid security concerns. And in Yahukimo district, where VICE contributor Febriana Firdaus was on the ground, where, on Tuesday, a clash broke out between two tribes that left the district on high-alert and under heavy security.

In Dekai, the district capital, our reporter saw a heavy security presence throughout the city, with armed soldiers and police officers stationed in the city's market, along the main street, and outside government buildings.

And on Wednesday morning, when the elections were scheduled to kick off, our reporter hit the streets of Dekai with a local government official only to find that the voting still hadn't begun. The local elections supervisory committee struggled to get the ballot boxes delivered to all of Yahukimo's 51 subdistricts in time, causing some polling stations to open some four hours late.

In those that did open, voter lists were often incomplete, preventing some of the local residents who arrive to vote from casting their ballots. Province-wide, nearly 630,000 voters were still not on the electronic voter rolls (e-ID) thanks to sluggish progress by the Papua Social Affairs and Civil Registry Agency. In Yahukimo, at TPS 1, throngs of frustrated would-be voters were gathered outside the polling station by the time our reporter arrived, most of them complaining about being barred from voting in the election.


"I will read the name of everyone who can vote at this TPS," an election supervisory official shouted over the crowd. "If you're name is not on the list, then you can't vote here. That's the rule."

One of the women turned and walked away from the crowd, grumbling as she left, "It's over. We can't vote."

One of the reasons behind the election issues in Papua comes from the sheer logistical challenge of holding an election in the poorest region in Indonesia, a place where basic infrastructure, like roads linking remote villages in the highlands are lacking, and the easiest way to get from place to place is often by booking a seat on a boat or chartering a small plane.

But the problems with Papua's difficult elections run much deeper than a lack of roads. The province was annexed by Indonesia in 1969 when the central government conducted a vote by asking 1,026 hand-picked elders to raise their hand if they wanted Papua to remain a part of Indonesia, an act dubbed the "Act of Free Choice."

Outside observers immediately dismissed the vote as a sham and since then, a low-level insurgency waged by armed militants who want to secede from the nation as a independent country has continued for decades.

On Wednesday, as election officials and a local leader sailed a boat through Torere district, deep in the island's rural interior, unknown militants were laying in wait. They ambushed the boat, fatally shooting the local district chief. Two of the nine police officers who were guarding ballot boxes stuffed with votes from up-river vanished in the attack as well. There whereabouts are still unknown.


In Yahukimo, election officials shut down the polling station and began to count the votes after being open for only two hours. And then, when the totaled the amount of ballots cast, the officials discovered six more votes than had been recorded in the ledger.

"It should be 800 but we have six extra, so it's 806," Melki Pekey told VICE.

Two of the ballots were thrown out because they were badly damaged. But four others remained and the crowd began to turn tense with anger. The election staff brokered a deal where they just threw away four votes, two from each candidate, in an attempt to be fair.

At the nearby TPS 3, officials told the crowd of voters that they had no intentions of counting the ballots in front of them. They wanted to take the ballot boxes to a a district center and count them there. The police standing guard intervened and urged them to count the ballots in front of everyone at the polling station to keep it all transparent.

In eight other subdistricts in Yahukimo, heavy storms prevented election officials from getting the ballot boxes to polling stations in time. On election day, local residents were still waiting for the ballot boxes to arrive via helicopter from Timika, the closest major city.

"The election committee had failed to coordinate it well," Samule Wetapo, the head of the local Election Supervisory Committee (Panwaslu), which was tasked with ensuring that Papua's elections went off without too many problems, told VICE. "So we have to ask for help from Timika. We asked them to send a helicopter with the ballot boxes."


Officials initially expected to announce the results of Papua's heated governor's race in 12 days' time, but that estimate will likely be pushed back until districts forced to delay the vote finally get a chance to cast their ballots.

All of this occurred as Papuans went to the polls in an election that pit two very different candidates, with two very different visions of who they needed to serve in Papua against each other. The province may be the poorest in Indonesia, but it's also one of the most-resource rich places on Earth. Freeport's Grasberg mine along is worth an estimated $100 million USD and substantial coal and timber reserves.

This wealth has, by most accounts, remained out of reach for Papua's indigenous Melanesian peoples. As much as 28 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to government estimates. A United Nations study found that Papua's poverty rates disproportionately affected its indigenous communities.

Instead, a long and controversial history of transmigration has brought Indonesians from other, more crowded, parts of the country into cities in Papua. In the past, this movement of people was an official government policy. Today, it's more of a standard practice and, now, as much as 30 to 50 percent of the region's population is non-indigenous, according to various estimates. The vast majority of these non-indigenous residents have roots in Java.


This split was plainly evident in the governor's race. Candidate John Wempi Wetipo and his running-mate Hebel Melkias Suwae campaigned in Papua's urban centers, where the majority of transmigrant residents live, with banners written in Javanese and images of the pair decked out in traditional Javanese clothing. The men, both of them backed by both the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and leading opposition Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), were trying to unseat incumbent governor Lukas Enembe, a man with deep support in the indigenous highlands but embroiled in a massive corruption scandal over the alleged theft of government funds meant for scholarships for poor Papuan students.

Enembe, of the Democratic Party, has also been accused of allowing economic progress to stall under his watch. But he was still able to secure the support of nearly every other major political party in Indonesia for his re-election bid, as well as the backing of many indigenous Papuans.

But not everyone was convinced of Enembe's track record.

"It’s been five years of Enembe ruling this province, but nothing has happened in Yahukimo,” Arho Balingga, a voter in Yahukimo, told VICE. She decided to vote for his rival Wetipo instead.

In Jayapura, Ethia Lokbere cast her ballot for Wetipo and his running-mate, who together are known by the name JOSHUA in Papua, as well, explaining that he trusted the pair to bring Papua into the future.

"JOSHUA wants to build a independent Papua," he told VICE. "He wants to create a safe atmosphere, to make it peaceful and prosperous for the people so no one has to depend on others anymore."

But what neither candidate wanted to touch was the province's long-ignored calls for a new independence vote. The National Committee for West Papua (KNPB), an organization calling for Jakarta to allow for a new vote, said that it had no plans to backing either candidate. Ones Suhuniap, the general secretary of the KNPB, told VICE that neither candidate had the interests of actual Papuans at heart.

"The governor only rules to benefit Jakarta”, he told VICE. "If KNPB members want to vote, that's their right, but the organization's leaders are not involved in [supporting either candidate for] Papua’s governor."