JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It was a voter education class, a campaign speech and an advice session rolled into one, and PPP legislator Okky Asokawati had the rapt attention of her female audience throughout her 90-minute speech, stopping only for the call to prayer.
The 40 or so women, seated on a blue carpet in a narrow alleyway one balmy March afternoon, heard Asokawati weaving together Koranic verses, the correct voting procedure, women’s health and her young daughter’s near-death experience with an appeal for their votes.
Asokawati, wearing a vivid green headscarf – the colour of her United Development Party - and the neck-to-toe robe of an orthodox Indonesian Muslim woman, is one of a record number of women vying for seats in the April 9 parliamentary election - 38 percent of 6,608 registered contenders.
Including elections at the same time for regional, provincial and district assemblies, there are 83,000 women among the 240,000 candidates.
Women's rights activists rejoiced on March 12 when the Constitutional Court strengthened the 2012 Legislative Election Law which requires parties to ensure 30 percent of their candidates are women.
The Court ruled that women should get priority if male and female candidates in a constituency had the same number of votes, and that women candidates could occupy the first three positions in a party list, going further than the requirements set out in the Election Law.
Their joy was tempered by the fact that, without reserved seats, the law and the court ruling will not necessarily get more women into parliament in a country notorious for money politics and political dynasties.
Entering politics is difficult for anyone without a big surname, wads of cash or celebrity star power, said Dewi Candraningrum, chief editor of women’s magazine Jurnal Perempuan.
“Right now, many female politicians are facing challenges to enter political parties because the system is very corrupt. Those who have built support in the grassroots but have no financial support find it difficult to enter the battle,” she said.
Eva Sundari, a rights activist and lawmaker with the opposition PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), agrees.
“Most parliamentarians come from wealthy families. The party's recruiters will nominate the most likely ones to be elected including artists, and popular and rich (people),” so representatives of the poor are left out, she said.
In a sign of disenchantment, half the women respondents in a recent study by the Indonesian Women Research Institute said they did not feel national female legislators represented them. Another study found that over 40 percent of women elected in 2009 were from political dynasties.
RIGHTS NOT IMPROVED
Rights activists also say women’s rights have not improved despite a rise in the proportion of women elected to the national parliament to 18 percent in 2009 from 11 percent in 2004, and the fact that women’s participation in provincial and district governments, at 16 percent and 12 percent respectively, is at a record high.
In 2013, the National Commission of Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded 342 regulations that discriminate against women and minorities, more than double the figure recorded in 2009.
Asokawati said she believes Islam treats women fairly. But her party, the Islamic PPP, has publicly stated its opposition to the Gender Equality and Justice Bill, and many of the regulations in question were issued by the local leaders of non-Islamic parties.
High-profile corruption scandals involving female Indonesian politicians have also dented the argument of some rights activists that women politicians are less corrupt than men.
Still, Michelle Bekkering, Indonesia country director at the International Republican Institute (IRI), says that around the world there are many proven benefits of increased female participation in politics, including higher Gross Domestic Product and lower rates of poverty and illiteracy.
The IRI, an NGO, has been training women candidates from all eligible parties in five provinces to improve their capacity to run campaigns that reflect the concerns of voters, Bekkering said. “No country can get ahead when it is leaving half of its citizens behind,” she added.
CELEBRITIES AND DYNASTIES
Asokawati, a former top model and one of some 50 celebrities contesting the elections, admits her popularity is an asset and makes her electable, but says it is unfair to separate members of parliament who are public figures from those from the grassroots.
What is important is a good work ethic and for legislators to be able to relate to their constituents, she said during a break from campaigning. “You should throw away your ego when you become an MP,” she said.
Vera Febyanthy, a legislator from the ruling Democrat Party seeking a third term, also bears a well-known name. Asked why and how she entered politics, her candid reply was “because my dad is the founder and funder of this party. Politics is in my blood.”
But the 43-year-old said her performance had convinced voters she was not relying on her family name to stay in parliament. She also rejected the assertion that female parliamentarians do not represent grassroots women.
“We are not appointed. We are elected by the people who we interact with (at the grassroots level),” she said.
All the candidates Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to emphasized the importance of the quality of female candidates and said parties should not just be filling a quota.
TOWARDS CLEANER POLITICS
Women’s rights groups and NGOs like IRI are holding workshops and training sessions to change the way election campaigns are run, focusing on door-to-door campaigning instead of traditional canvassing using free food and t-shirts, dangdut singers and lofty speeches in public spaces.
“Our message to women is: ‘Run as a clean candidate. Voters in this country are tired of money campaigns. Also, you do not have the money’,” IRI’s Bekkering said. Some women candidates lost homes and assets after the 2009 elections when they were unable to repay the money they had borrowed to finance their campaigns, she said.
It is a message that veteran activist Binny Buchori believes in. She is running in East Java for Golkar – the party of former dictator Suharto – for the second time, against Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, the son of outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and 95 others.
After decades of urging the government to consider the plight of the poor, Buchori said she decided to change the system from within, including reforming her party.
“Politics is too important to be given to a powerful few,” she said in early April, in a phone interview between campaign events.
“I believe in Golkar’s own struggle to be a different party. Golkar has a very strong support base and very good infrastructure. What they need actually is good people to reform the party.”