2009 / Media / Media Coverage

Published: 17/02/2009

Tempo Magazine, No. 24/IX, February 10-16, 2009
Kate Lamb

Indonesians can boast they have had a woman in the top job, but activists say that female representation in the post-election cabinet will be lower than that of Rwanda.

DUE to affirmative action policies, Rwanda now has 44 percent of women in their parliament. “Amazing considering Rwanda is a more politically and economically backward country than Indonesia,” says Sita Aripurnami of the Women’s Research Institute.


The number of women in parliament post-election this year is expected to drop by almost half making it fall to around 6 percent. The introduction of the majority vote criteria means women will no longer be fast-tracked into the House of Representatives (DPR) as they were under the regulations of the 2004 election. This ‘zipper’ system required that one woman be placed in one of the top three positions of the party list, and significantly increased their chances of being elected.

“Women’s rights activists are in mourning. For us,” says Sita Aripurnami, “the work of years of lobbying the government to put affirmative action for women into policy has been swept away in a few days.”

The new system of majority voting will make it difficult for women to compete against their wealthier and better-connected male counterparts. Women are handicapped in the race through lower education, family responsibilities and lower party list rankings.

Of the 38 parties, only 12 have women in the top position in more than 20 percent of the 77 electoral districts.

Calculations based on the 2004 election show that under the new system only 26 out of those 56 women in parliament would remain.

From her office at parliament, Eva Sundari, current DPR member for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P, admits she will have to double her energy this year to retain her seat. Three months’ pregnant and campaigning hard, Eva believes female candidates will never win if they compete against men financially.

“I do not shower money like some candidates who give voters money after every meeting. I use dialogs to create an emotional connection between me and the voters.”
But do dollars and fame trump the heart in the election game?

According to Sandra Hamid, a Senior Director from the Asia Foundation, there are only two members in the DPR that were directly voted into the House in the 2004 election. Due to the high threshold, the remaining 500 or more were selected from party lists.

The new—majority vote wins a seat—criteria will transfer power from the party list to the ballot box. “Great news for democracy, but not fantastic news for the representation of women in politics,” says Hamid.

Representation will become a truer reflection of votes rather than internal party politics. “This is fantastic news for accountability and democracy,” says Hamid, but, “an array of problems arises when candidates are no longer ‘held hostage’ by their parties.”

Those with the cash will have the flashiest campaigns. Personality politics is in danger of surpassing policy at the voting booths.

Despite her strong education and current¬ parliamentary seat, Eva Sundari feels threatened by the increasing shift to personality politics. She worries that the results of the election will see “more very popular people in parliament who are utterly incapable.”

“If people vote a pretty face into parliament, they will face the consequences in their district,” says Hamid. She believes that the behavior of Indonesian voters has been overlooked. “With the wheels turning in motion, politicians will one day learn that they will not be voted in if they don’t deliver. I have my trust in the Indonesian people to vote rationally.”

The new system does have its advantages. It will force DPR members to be more accountable. What it does not do is give female candidates the added boost they need to compete with men on equal terms.

“Majority rules,” argues Sita “do not necessarily correlate with democracy because men and women do not start from equal platforms.” Women entering politics are hindered both institutionally and culturally.

If a woman enters politics she is scrutinized for what she can bring to the table. “Men,” says Dr Nursanita Nasution, a legislature member from the Justice & Prosperity Party, PKS, “are never asked this question even though some of them are incapable.”

The reality is female politicians are not only representatives of their political parties but also of their gender.

Many women this year are making the switch from activist to politician proving that women are frustrated by being on the sidelines. A new generation of well-educated, gung-ho women are coming through the ranks to replace the despotic crew of Suharto-era wives-cum-politicians.

Binny Buchori, an NGO activist for the past 20 years, has had enough of ‘democracy being hijacked by the elite’ and has developed a strong welfare-based campaign for Golkar in Yogyakarta.

“The reality is whether we like it or not, NGOs are not deciding what policies will be implemented. I don’t want to sit on the periphery any more.”

“Women know what women need,” sighs Binny. “And there are so many decisions that affect them.”