Opinion & Analysis

Death by overwork: The complicated case of the Indonesian election

OPINION: The deaths of more than 400 local level election workers across Indonesia has emerged as an alarming and ongoing news story following presidential and legislative elections on April 17, 2019. In the absence of in-depth analysis, media and governing institutions in Indonesia have arrived at the cause of death: kelelahan, fatigue or exhaustion.

Emeritus Professor of Indonesian Demography, Terry Hull, in public discussions about this on Facebook, has likened these deaths to the Japanese condition karōshi, literally translated as “overwork death", not uncommon across Asia and typically manifesting through heart attack or stroke due to stress. Anecdotal reports of election worker deaths in Indonesia appear to broadly match this tentative diagnosis, but Hull and many other observers emphasise that detailed mortality data and demographic characteristics of the entire election worker population are needed.

As of May 4, the General Elections Commission of Indonesia (Komisi Pemilihan Umum, KPU)  has reported 424 deaths out of a total 7,385,500 local election workers. The KPU has accepted responsibility for these occupational deaths and payments to families are forthcoming.

Indonesian election

The KPU employs more than 7 million election workers. IMAGE: Asia New Zealand Foundation

Elections administer the democratic transfer or continuation of governing authority, a sensitive period fraught with high stakes. The KPU’s careful and methodical work of tabulating and reporting the results continues, with official certification not expected until May 22, 2019. Nonetheless, all credible quick-count polling organisations have predicted with consistent findings that incumbent president Joko Widodo has won re-election. While awaiting the official results, the opposing coalition unfortunately has been working tirelessly to delegitimise the electoral process. The seemingly questionable deaths of so many election workers has triggered a new wave of clickbait conspiracies and sensational accusations about KPU’s competence to do their job fairly. But are these deaths really so questionable?

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations show that, demographically speaking, 424 deaths out of more than 7 million local election workers, over the course of more than two weeks, does not exceed the average mortality rate for Indonesia. In fact, it’s much less, as it should be since average mortality rates capture the elderly and sick in the general population who would be dying no matter what, and presumably are not working as election workers.

Another popular comparison is with the reported deaths of Indonesians who undertake the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca, a whole order of magnitude higher with anywhere from 200-500 deaths out of around 200,000 Indonesian pilgrims every year. Again, these skew toward the elderly who travel under demanding conditions. Three weeks after the election, newspapers are still reporting deaths of election workers, and adding them to the total, but one wonders why the election work is still cited as the cause of death.

For the few cases with additional details available, reports of death by kelelahan after the election begin to make sense when the workload and stress of their jobs are taken into account. Reporting from North Sumatra for New Naratif, Aisyah Llewellyn, for instance, paints a fuller picture without sensational accusations. Two interesting factors in Llewellyn’s reporting stand out, one widely reported and the other almost never mentioned. The first is the new mandate, required by the Constitutional Court and formalized in the most recent election law, to hold both the presidential and legislative elections simultaneously. They had previously been held several months apart. Legislative elections require four ballots: national assembly, national senate, provincial assembly, and district/municipal assembly; along with the presidential ballot, KPU election workers had to administer the logistics and tabulation of five ballots, each one counted and verified by hand, in public, on a strict schedule. As a former observer of just the legislative elections in Aceh in 2009, I can confirm this is an exhausting and high stakes task, conducted in front of the interested public and political party representatives.

Indonesian election

It was the first time the presidential and legislative elections were held simultaneously. IMAGE: Asia New Zealand Foundation

While these technical burdens of administering the elections have been widely reported to help explain death by kelelahan, the partisan political pressures election workers face have not. Described as “mental intimidation” by Llewellyn and her informants, this year’s elections were held in a political climate in which political parties and candidate campaigners decided it was fair game to attack the integrity of the electoral process itself, accusing KPU and all its staff of perpetrating hoaxes and vote-rigging on behalf of different candidates. Local poll workers were on the front lines of this political intimidation, absorbing the brunt of local campaign efforts to cast aspersions on their work. In Southeast Asian societies where shame (malu in Indonesian) can be a powerful motivator, the imperative to save face before one’s peers surely poses psychological burdens when faced with cross-cutting currents of intimidation in one’s own community, and hard to measure in a systematic clinical way.

While the KPU has owned up to its technical failure to account for the workload burdens of administering five ballots on one day, there has been no political reckoning to acknowledge the psychological pressure and intimidation surrounding these elections. I think the respective political campaigns and parties should also accept some responsibility (not just the KPU), but I don’t think this will ever happen. While KPU is still busy processing the results, they have promised to evaluate their procedures as soon as the immediate task at hand is complete. Improvements may including allowing more time to administer the ballots, hiring more workers, or applying stricter fitness tests for its millions of temporary workers.

From an individual human, family, and civic community perspective, Indonesians are grieving the loss of these election workers and recognising all the hard work they did to make the election happen. They are by all accounts, civic heroes.

Nevertheless, apart from this human interest narrative, I think the death of election workers should be a non-story and that political spoilers and mass media are colluding to sensationalize the narrative and delegitimise the process. It remains to be shown whether or not these deaths exceed the expected mortality rate for this select group of Indonesians, and that requires a proper epidemiological investigation, to assess any outstanding demographic factors that may help us understand how and why these election workers died while pursuing an honourable civic duty for their community. For instance, were they more likely to be smokers or older than the general population? Were they more likely to have pre-existing health conditions? The problem with doing a proper epidemiological study that correctly accounts for these demographic factors instead of a simple comparison of mortality rates is the expense and time that would be required to complete it. This is an academic question that political election cycles are too impatient to accommodate.

Main image: Wikimedia Commons

- Asia Media Centre