PoliticsSocial Issues

Voting from Abroad and the Challenge of Staying Engaged

I walked out of the district office near my house with the Jakarta heat burning my scalp and warming my skin. I slipped my new ID card inside my wallet, headed back home, and continued packing my bags. In 2014, I was finally legally entitled to vote in the Indonesian presidential election. Coincidentally, this was also the year I moved to Canada. I waved my goodbyes and got on the plane five months before Election Day. This created a shift in how I engaged with the politics of my home country in a way that I didn’t anticipate, but clearly felt and experienced.

Once my family arrived in Toronto, my uncle handed us a form to fill. “If you submit that, you can vote for the election at the local Indonesian consulate,” he said.

I snatched a pen and filled the form immediately, excited and relieved. I had thought I wouldn’t be able to vote anymore, while away from my homeland. My peers were all excited to vote for the upcoming presidential election; they took pictures of their ID card, encouraged others to register to vote, and constantly tweeted about the election’s development.

Every day, the upcoming election was a prominent topic in their conversations.

For me, the experience was slightly different.

Voting from Abroad and the Challenge of Staying Engaged

(Source: Elliott Stallion on Unsplash)

I carried on with my life, unpacking my things at our new place in Toronto and keeping up with my university applications. My phone continuously beeped with notifications whenever anything “politically noteworthy” happened. My friends posted their opinions online. The Indonesian news sources I followed were constantly posting new articles. My aunt and father debated on-and-off about which candidate would make a better president.

And yet, with everything that was going on, somehow I felt…detached.

Between my countless daily activities, my resolve to be an informed voter was slipping through the cracks. One way or another, I kept finding reasons to prevent myself from catching up with all the political news.

Voting from Abroad and the Challenge of Staying Engaged

(Source: annie bolin on Unsplash)

Whenever I tried, campaigns by the presidential candidates seemed non-stop. Online arguments, between supporters of different candidates, also became more aggressive and harder to follow over time. Getting political news online meant immersing myself in endless debates. Moreover, because of the Canada to Indonesia time difference, I would always read the news later than my friends back home. I could barely keep up because everything was so overwhelming.

The physical distance between myself and my home country also meant I was surrounded by a different environment—one unconcerned with Indonesia’s politics. In fact, the conversations around me didn’t center on the candidates or anything resembling the politics of my homeland. News on Indonesia only became accessible to me through words on different social media platforms.

Of course I was invested in who would be the next president. I wanted a wise leader to help the country prosper. Yet, I found that it was increasingly challenging to muster up the energy to care about the upcoming election. Given the limited ways available for me to engage with the current political issues, my excitement on voting—for the first time—started to fade.

Voting from Abroad and the Challenge of Staying Engaged

(Source: Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash)

A few weeks before Election Day, I sprawled on my bed and hit the green button on my phone screen. My friend’s face appeared on the screen and she waved at me. We talked for hours about our lives until there was a lull of conversation. She cleared her throat.

“So,” she said. “Who are you going to vote for during the election?”

I told her the candidate I had in mind.

“Oh cool,” she replied. “Why do you want to vote for him?”

I didn’t have an answer to her question.

“Because…” I hesitated, racking my brain for an answer that would make sense. I didn’t know much about the candidates—not beyond what a quick scroll through my social media feeds would tell me. “His policies seem more reasonable.”

She clucked her tongue. “I agree with you, but did you hear his answers during the recent debate? One of them bothers me.”

“No,” I said. “Not yet.”

Afterwards, I ended the video call and stared at the ceiling. My inability to answer a simple question with evidence and reason embarrassed me. The casual way my friend listed off arguments for and against each candidate also made me question if I had been too aloof about the whole election process. I understood that it was important to vote. How else would we pick a candidate to represent what the people believe in? Yet somehow, in the past few months I had neglected my responsibility as a citizen to stay informed about the politics of my country.

Voting from Abroad and the Challenge of Staying Engaged

(Source: Pexels)

The distance made it easy for me to ignore the election, but I knew it was just as easy to rectify it. I sat up, grabbed my laptop, and opened my browser. I read through one news article after another, researching each candidate to the best of my capabilities. I considered each candidate and even read the online comments people posted. I didn’t stop my research until I was satisfied and caught up with the most recent development.

The following days, I continued to keep up with the election. Whenever it was overwhelming, I closed my browser tab and took a break. Later on, I would pick up where I had left off. For the first time in a while, I was also able to discuss the upcoming election with my Dad and friends back home.

Thanks to my research, I walked into the voting booth with confidence. I believed I was able to make an informed vote, considering not just my personal opinions, but also the promises of each presidential candidate and the conditions of Indonesia.

It wasn’t easy for me to stay engaged with the politics of my country when I was so far away from it. I had to make conscious efforts to know what was going on with Indonesian politics. Now, four years later, I still have to actively look up news articles about my home country. However, I have learned that it is always worth the effort to stay politically informed and educated. The next Indonesian presidential election is a year away. Next time, I will be even more prepared.

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Voting from Abroad and the Challenge of Staying Engaged