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Where votes and gods converge

Tonight will be the first full moon of Kadasa, the first month of the Balinese calendar, an occasion to be marked by the Bhatara Tarun Kabeh (The god’s visit on earth) ceremony. It’s also April 9, 2009 — the day of Indonesia’s legislative election. A report by Morgan Harrington.

world Updated: Apr 10, 2009 02:07 IST
Morgan Harrington

As the light of the morning star faded and the sun crest over Gung Agung, Bali’s tallest mountain, devotees began arriving at Pura (temple) Besakih, the island’s oldest, largest and most sacred place of worship. Tonight will be the first full moon of Kadasa, the first month of the Balinese calendar, an occasion to be marked by the Bhatara Tarun Kabeh (The God’s Visit on Earth) ceremony. It’s also April 9th, 2009, the day of Indonesia’s third ever legislative election (the presidential poll will be held in July).

What makes this year particularly interesting is that its 1931 on the Balinese calendar and between the 12th of December last year and the 27th of April a series of events which happen only once every 10 years will take place. Although it culminated with the Panca Wali Krama ceremony, which was held on the 26th of March to restore cosmic balance, the rest of the month is still a particularly auspicious time for the islands majority Hindu population (who account for about 2 percent of Indonesia’s population).

Add to this the general, archipelago wide feeling of apathy towards a democratic system, which, still very much in its infancy, has more than a few kinks to iron out, and many projected a very low voter turn out in Bali.

“I’m not going to vote. People don’t care about the election or who’s in charge, as long as the country runs,” says Ketut, about to ascend the hundreds of steps to the main temple, Pura Penataran Agung (among the many differences between them and their South Asian counterparts Balinese Hindus do not depict the gods in anthropomorphic form). “What’s the most important is religion, its our culture,” he explained.

The polls have been open a half an hour and at 8:30 a trickle of devotees of democracy mill around a community school, 200 meters from the entrance to the temple. The Besakih KPPS officials (village level election officials) acknowledge the potential problem of a double booking not just for the locals, but Balinese people in general, but they remain optimistic. “We hope people will come in the morning and then go to the temple after,” says Nyoman, who is guiding voters through the collection of coloured ballots, one for each level of representation and each about as big as an unfolded broadsheet newspaper. Of the villages 1000 registered voters, Nyoman says the officials hope around half of that will actually vote.

With 138 through the door already, they are, perhaps surprisingly, well on the way to reaching their target. He does however, acknowledge some problems: with so many names to choose from the ballot is confounding (36 parties are running at the national level), maybe half of voters in his room understand the newly introduced system of ticking next to the name of ones candidate of choice (as opposed to a hole punch system formerly used) and a significant amount of older people are illiterate. Bali has a huge rural population and education is not something a lot of people are privilege too, Nyoman points out. “A lot of people in the community are confused by the new system.

But if they don’t understand we help them out,” he says with a smile. Similar scenes could be found at other village voting locations in the area. In Angsoka, on the other side of the mountain from the temple, a group of mostly men stood around waiting for their name to be called as they, one at a time, exercised their decade old democratic rights. Watra, a KPPS official in this village, said his colleagues were expecting an 80 percent turn out.

When asked about the ceremony he said that people in his local area would certainly be attending – after they vote. “Its only once every five years, so why not come?” he says. Back in the temple, the early morning calm has given way to pandemonium as throngs of worshippers gather on every level of the complexes 23 temples.

A soft glow and a cool early morning breeze have given way to a perfectly cloudless day. By midday the sun beats down, testing the patience of the pilgrims, who scuttle to find a cool spot in the shade of one of the many merus (temple spires). The subdued formality of the polling stations is in stark contrast to the lively joy of the ceremony. It is important to note that the main events of the ceremony were pushed back a couple of hours to allow people the time to vote, but by eleven o’clock celebrations are in full swing.

The notes of traditional xylophones and gongs ring out in interlocking rhythms as enchanting dancers make their way across the courtyard to their beat. Elaborately costumed, masked performers act out the story of the temples origin and, perhaps most importantly, wave after wave of people take their turn to pray, give offerings to the gods and receive blessings in return. “Yes, of course I voted!” says Made enthusiastically, “Just this morning, on my way to the temple.” He brushed aside the idea that people wouldn’t vote, explaining that, “in Bali people have one side for God and one side for the nation.”

At two o’clock, as it became hard to find room to sit in the temple, the polls officially closed and the count began. The concerns were justified, as a significant amount of ballots had unclear markings, making the intention of the voter hard to determine. But by the time the count was in, the worst of fears could be securely put to rest. Although only 300 of Besakih’s 1000 registered voters actually cast a ballot, 75 percent of registered voters in Bali performed their democratic duty, according to The Indonesian Survey Institute. Meanwhile, up at the temple, the gods visited earth, as for who they voted for, unfortunately they would only communicate off the record.