JAKARTA/DEPOK, Indonesia -- Indonesians streamed into polling stations to vote in regional elections on Wednesday, with health experts warning of the risk of new coronavirus clusters emerging across the archipelago after authorities ignored calls to postpone the vote again.
A mammoth logistical undertaking even without a pandemic, more than 100 million people are eligible to vote with nearly 300,000 polling stations set up in 24 districts and 37 cities.
The vote in the world’s third-biggest democracy comes as Indonesia struggles to contain Southeast Asia’s worst COVID-19 outbreak with more than 586,000 infections and 18,000 deaths.
Voter enthusiasm did not seem to have been significantly dampened in the densely populated city of Depok in West Java.
“Of course we are all worried during this pandemic, but as a good citizen of this country I want to participate in this election,” said resident Rusdiana Jarkasih, as volunteers handed out gloves and checked voters’ temperatures.
In Serang, on the outskirts of Jakarta, media reports said some voters used rubber boats to navigate flooded streets to reach polling stations.
The vote had been pushed back once, but the government ignored calls from health experts and Islamic groups for a second postponement.
Posters from the election commission in the lead up to the polls showed a graphic of staff dressed in hazmat suits collecting votes from hospitalised COVID-19 patients, reminding them they still had a right to vote.
Epidemiologist Pandu Riono warned that with around 100 million Indonesians active at the same time “it’s very likely that new clusters will emerge”.
While some countries in the region including South Korea and Singapore appear to have held elections successfully during the pandemic, Malaysia attributed a new spike in cases to an election in the country’s second-largest state Sabah.
An Indonesian election official said staff would ensure health protocols were followed, with voters encouraged to wear masks and election workers given personal protective equipment.
However, Indonesia’s election supervisory agency has said health protocols were violated more than 2,000 times during the campaign period.
Data from independent data initiative Lapor COVID-19 showed that 76 candidates in the election had contracted COVID-19, while four have died.
Alongside health worries, many relatives of noted politicians are contesting seats this year, raising concerns over a growth in dynastic politics in a country long dominated by old elites.
Compared to regional elections in 2015 when there were 52 dynastic candidates, this year there are 146, including Gibran Rakabuming Raka, President Joko Widodo’s eldest son, who is expected to win the race for mayor in the Javanese city of Surakarta, a position once held by his father.