The Purple Pinky

“Sudah pilih?”

I was seeking out locals on my way home, asking them – point blank: Did you already choose? From the way I glanced at their hands, shaking my little finger, they quickly understood that I wanted to know if they’d already voted. That’s how it is in Indonesia: A swift look at the hand gives you a telltale sign.

But, that’s not the only quirky part of this country’s elections. I dug into the morning paper (a rarity for me these days; picking up an actual newspaper) to learn a little more about how these presidential elections – pitting current President Jokowi (as he is more casually known) against a former military general – would unfold across the country.

The numbers alone made me gasp: Nearly 300 million citizens, over 190 million registered voters would be casting votes in 8 hours of polling, at over 800,000 polling stations across this vast archipelago stretching 4800 kilometers. A record 245,000 candidates, “bitter mudslinging” and all, would be vying for public office.

Surely, arranging logistics for one of the world’s biggest one-day election, would have been a nightmare. But creative arrangements ruled the day. Cardboard ballot boxes were transported to remote villages by various methods: Elephants in Sumatra’s Aceh province; and horses in East Java. Speedboats were being deployed as mobile polling stations to serve employees of isolated resorts and offshore oil rigs. And displaced members of the Shia minority living in East Java were assured of secured voting in a designated shelter.

Voting in this “graft-riddled country” would require that individuals punch holes in ballot cards, then dip their pinky into “Muslim-approved” halal ink (typically the pinky, but other purple-stained fingers have been spotted) to prevent double-voting.

And so, I found purple pinkies everywhere; on street corners, in shops, a pharmacy, and among taxi drivers taking a break. They laughed heartily as I snooped around, asking the same question to all, checking out their hands. Then, a woodworker, finding my inquiry hilarious, apologized that he could not oblige as he’d already lost his stain.

Regardless of the results of this election (which are not slated to be finalized for another month), at least on this day, the Indonesian people will have worn their purple pinky power with pride.


  1. Hi Pam, yes indeed.. except that NPR would have been the ideal place to get ‘real’ (i.e. serious) commentary! These days, I usually prefer to lean in to the quirkier, irreverent sides of events/people/places πŸ˜‰ Thanks for reading!

  2. I’m trying to understand: “Nearly 300 citizens, over 190 million registered voters “. So, most voters are non-citizens? You don’t have to be a citizen to vote or do you only have to be a resident? I’m curious.

    1. Thanks for your comment Annette. I was curious too! Then I asked and realized that it comes down to the remoteness of where most citizens live: With more than 17,000 islands spread out across this vast archipelago, I’m not even sure it’s possible to actually know (=count) that 300 million.. it’s more likely a figure loosely calculated. My hunch is that the authorities are able to account for just over 50% of that figure.

  3. What an interesting way of casting a vote! I’d be enthralled by all the purple pinkies. Thanks for the “on the ground” report and for providing photos to give us a better idea of the process. It’s incredible they really try to reach even the most remote areas to make sure everyone has a chance to vote.

    I guess the “300 citizens” in your text (as noted by another commenter) is meant to be 300 million. That makes more sense. πŸ™‚

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