JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Major Muslim and Christian religious organisations have called on the faithful to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming elections to counter a rising movement in favour of abstaining and the possibility that potential voters might choose to go on holiday during the election week.
On Monday (March 25), Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) executive Muhyiddin Junaidi reiterated the organisation's stance that abstaining from voting is haram: in other words, forbidden on religious grounds.
The MUI had issued a fatwa in 2014 requiring Muslims to vote and it stipulated they should vote for a leader who met certain religious criteria.
"In Islam, voting for a leader is an obligation in order to uphold leadership and governance in our shared life," the fatwa said.
Other major Islamic mass organisations have also called on their followers to vote.
The Nahdlatul Ulama, for example, spoke out against abstention in its recent national congress, while Muhammadiyah icon Din Syamsuddin said that Muhammadiyah followers should not be neutral.
"It is not good for Muhammadiyah followers to not vote because that reflects an irresponsible attitude," he said as quoted by the Antara news agency.
The Catholic Indonesian Bishops Conference (KWI) and the Protestant Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) have both also issued statements saying there was a moral obligation to vote.
"Choosing not to vote is the same as allowing this nation to be ruled by anyone, including those who might want to subvert the (national ideology of) Pancasila and bring down this country," the KWI's Council for the Laity said in a statement.
"Do not abstain from voting!" the PGI said in a pastoral letter. "In making your choice, refer to the advice (from Exodus 18:21) about choosing a leader: 'Look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe.'"
Pluralism icon and Catholic priest Franz Magnis-Suseno also recently wrote an op-ed in the Kompas daily saying that those who abstained were either stupid or "mentally unstable".
Indonesia's voter turnout rate has traditionally been high, with post-Reform Era turnouts consistently reaching 70 per cent or higher.
But the rate of abstentions has shown an increasing trend since the 1999 general elections, and disillusioned voters have recently taken to social media to voice their intention to abstain from voting on April 17 because of their disappointment with both presidential tickets, particularly with their stances on human rights.
The April 17 election date also takes place just before the Easter weekend, a common vacation period, with Good Friday falling on April 19 this year.
Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem) researcher Fadli Ramadhanil declined to comment on the morality of choosing to abstain from voting, but said that electoral participation was important.
"To me, elections are like a test. Whether you take a test or not, the results will come out. The same with elections. Whether you participate or not, leaders will still be elected," he told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday. "But living in a democratic country that facilitates the will of the people, it is better to vote."
But some activists disagree.
Rights activist Haris Azhar, who has been outspoken in voicing his support for abstention, said that the religious organisations did not seem to have the interests of the people at heart.
"As religious organisations, they should understand the cries of the people who are disappointed with candidates who do not address the problems of the people," he told the Post on Tuesday. "If the religious organisations want to use moral arguments, please explain first: What are the moral foundations of the existing tickets with regards to their capacity, experience and commitment to justice, rights, law and prosperity?"
Public defender and abstention movement activist Alghiffari Aqsa said that while religious organisations like the MUI had good intentions in forbidding abstention, they were targeting the wrong problem.
"Abstentions are actually beneficial for a democracy," he said. "In the short term, candidates will try harder to improve their campaign performance and quality. In the long term, abstentions may be able to change the system or at least allow the demands of those who abstain to be heard in electoral politics."
Charta Politika executive director Yunarto Wijaya predicted, however, that the abstention rate would not change significantly from the 30 per cent during the 2014 presidential elections.
"I think most abstentions will be due to administrative errors in the DPT (final voters list) or due to technical issues such as people travelling on election day," he said. "I think ideological abstentions will at most make up only 20 per cent (of total abstentions)."