Workers lay during a break as they prepare election materials before their distribution to polling stations in a warehouse in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 15, 2019.
Workers lay during a break as they prepare election materials before their distribution to polling stations in a warehouse in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 15, 2019.

JAKARTA - Umar Madi’s wife told him to stop working, but he wouldn’t hear of it. As a 64-year-old election official in a West Jakarta area tasked to monitor and count the votes in the April 17 Indonesian presidential and legislative election, Umar set out to work at 6 a.m., one hour before voting began, and only stopped at 10 a.m.  the next day, without any sleep.

On April 24, he had just gotten up to pray when he fell unconscious in his wife’s hands. He was admitted to a nearby hospital, and had been in intensive care before dying two days later. He is survived by his wife, his two children and his three grandchildren. Umar’s daughter, Evi Erwiyati, told VOA that “after the elections, he was still working. He wanted to make sure that all the votes were guarded. He also complained that he was too tired and had refused to eat."

Umar was among more than 300 election officials who have reportedly died of exhaustion-related illnesses. In Umar’s case, said his daughter, the diagnosis was a stroke, though he also suffered from heart conditions that at the time were under control. “My mother would bring him medications, but he didn’t stop working. He was happy to do it,” Evi said.

Indonesia Election
Workers prepare ballot boxes to be distributed to polling stations in Jakarta, Indonesia, Apr. 15, 2019.

Arief Priyo Susanto, spokesman of the General Elections Commission (KPU), confirmed the number of deaths to VOA. “Generally, [the cause of the illness] is exhaustion,” he said. More than 2,000 others also reportedly fell ill.

The deaths are a stark note to end Indonesia’s elections, the first simultaneous elections since the country had its democratic elections two decades ago. The first democratic presidential election took place in 2004. Many deemed this year’s elections as a "feat of democracy" with 193 million voters going to the more than 810,000 polls.

Incumbent Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, smiles upon arriving for a meeting with leaders of his coalition parties in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 18, 2019.
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Like the others, Umar’s $35 pay for the labor-intensive work — counting the ballots by hand, monitoring them — is deemed insufficient, according to Titi Anggraini, the executive director of the monitoring group Association for Elections and Democracy. “The elections were conducted with five different ballots for presidential and legislative representatives. And the simultaneous nature contributed to these deaths,” said Titi. (Indonesia’s Constitutional Court declared the simultaneous elections in 2014.)

This year, the KPU lowered the minimum age for elections officials from 25 to 17. Along with the reduced number of voters in a single polling station, according to Titi, these regulations were intended to relieve the fatigue for each election official. “But it made no difference, since there are also problems with insufficient ballots and the number of political parties and representatives went up as well,” she said.

“The election officials need to be appreciated sufficiently. Even when money can’t replace what they did, the government needs to compensate whoever was left behind,” she added.

 Arief of the KPU told VOA the maximum compensation for the relatives of the fallen officials amounts to more than $2,100. On April 23, the health ministry told hospitals and other health facilities in a circular letter to give utmost care to the sick officials.

FILE - A worker arranges flower wreaths and congra
FILE - A worker arranges flower wreaths and congratulatory boards from people after this week's election outside General Election Commission (KPU) headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, Apr. 21, 2019.

Concerns over the simultaneous nature of the elections have led to talks on reform. “We have to evaluate the simultaneous elections, especially with regards to the execution,” Ace Hasan Syadzily, spokesman of Joko’s campaign team, told reporters Friday. Joko gave his condolences to the fallen election officials last week. “I think [these officials] are a warrior of democracy,” he said.

The KPU will conclude the vote counting process on May 22.

FILE - A worker unloads ballot boxes for the upcom
FILE - A worker unloads ballot boxes for the upcoming Indonesian presidential elections in Sidoarjo, near Surabaya, East Java, July 7, 2014.

In the previous elections five years ago, where the legislative and the presidential elections were conducted separately, more than 150 people died. Then and now, the officials, said Titi, “safeguarded not only the elections, but also Indonesia’s goodwill as a democratic nation.”

Umar’s daughter Evi would agree.

“When my father set out to do something, he would always feel like he had a responsibility to do. He wouldn’t come home until everything was settled. He did that so that his work wasn’t questioned by the people around,” she said. “I’m proud of the fact that he was known in the end for his discipline.”