Women in parliament – where are did your vote go?

Kompas – December 21, 2009
PDI-P Houser of Representatives lawmaker Eva Kusuma Sundari (Suara Dewan)
PDI-P Houser of Representatives lawmaker Eva Kusuma Sundari (Suara Dewan)

Umi Kulsum and Ignatius Kristanto – Two months have passed, but like an engine, they have also yet to “warm up”. Yet, their numbers have increased significantly compared with the previous period. What’s going on?

During one particular commission meeting, I asked the members to consider the aspect of gender. All of a sudden, there were shouts and jeers, “Huuu..., gender again, gender again”, related Eva Kusuma Sundari, a House of Representatives (DPR) member from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Eva’s experience illustrates how women members of parliament in the DPR for the period 2009-2014 do indeed still have to struggle to counterbalance the political domination of men at Senayan (the DPR).

There were in fact high hopes that the presence of women would be able to influence the parliament, one being that the institution would be able to produce decisions or policies that were no longer gender bias. This was one of the reasons why women activists had enthusiastically fought for a 30 percent quota in parliament.

The campaign for a 30 percent quota was defeated and replaced by the direct election of legislators, which as it turned out, resulted in a larger percentage of women in parliament. From 11.8 percent in the 2004 elections, it increased to 18 percent in the 2009 elections (where voters directly ticked the name of legislating candidates on the ballot papers).

On the one hand, this increase did indeed provide a sense of optimism that their presence would have an impact. But, many also expressed doubt bearing in mind that current female legislators do not have any previous experience in political activity or social organisations.

These doubts can be seen from a Kompas research and development survey conducted between 15 and 16 December. The majority (60 percent) of respondents felt dissatisfied with women legislator’s performance in parliament. Their voices are yet to be heard “loud and clear” compared with those of male politicians.

In addition to this, the public is also of the view that there performance is inferior to their male counterparts. The majority (61 percent) of respondents believe that the female members of parliament have not yet played much of an active role. In the midst of the political uproar post the presidential election, starting with the “gecko verses the crocodile” (the Corruption Eradication Commission verses the police) case to the Bank Century (bailout scandal), their voices are still being drowned out by male politicians.

Recruitment system

A similar view meanwhile was also raised by University of Indonesia Faculty of Social and Political Science lecturer Ani Soetjipto. Soetjipto suggests that the problem is caused by the political party’s system of recruitment. The parties should look at the background of each legislative candidate, not just pursue a 30 percent quota of women.

The mechanisms for determining the legislative candidate list ranking in parties should also give more consideration to candidates’ qualifications, prioritising people who have a good track record or will representing the people in parliament.

In addition to this, the legislative candidate list ranking is often still influenced by a person’s closeness to or family relationship with party leaders or senior officials. “Indeed, sometimes the top ranking in regional elections are usually filled by people who are close family members of senior party officials,” added Soetjipto.

Conversely, it appears to be difficult for women who have long been fighting for women’s rights to get into parliament. The evidence being out of the women currently sitting in the DPR, only one activist made it into parliament. The majority of women legislators come from political dynasties, the business sector or families of businesspeople and from celebrity circles. Celebrities have a second advantage aside from being widely known, generally they have quite a lot of money.

So, it is not surprising therefore that an negative view has emerged among the public. The majority of respondents (64 percent) still doubt that women legislators’ will be able to free themselves from the domination of the male members of the House so their ability to play an active role in the DPR will remain minimal.

Certainly their numbers have increased. But according to Eva however, their numbers in parliament are still [not] decisive. The figure of 18 percent turns out to be like a drop in the ocean that is still not audible amongst the domination of male politicians.

“I call this the politics of numbers, I [always] loose the vote, particularly if it has to be through a quorum, I will definitely loose,” said the former University of Airlangga lecturer.

So, according to Eva, more women are needed in the DPR than there are now. “But it’s not just because of numbers, but support from fellow women colleagues is extremely important in the assembly hall,” she said.

In addition to this, their “burden” is added to by the deeply entrenched gender bias of male politicians, as related by Eva at the beginning of this article. Apparently the public is also aware of this as reflected by 64 percent of respondents who believe that the political world still discriminates against women.

Minimal experience

In politics, good organisational experience is absolutely vital in order to organise larger issues, but only a small number of members elected to parliament have this.

Eva is one of the DPR members that has a quite strong social and political organisational background, but no more than 10 women in the current parliament has the experience of this PDI-P politician. Indeed there are eight women assembly members who have never been involved in social or political activities.

Viewed from their age however, the women politicians in parliament are very promising. The majority are still in their productive years, being under 36 years old. This is very different from the situation in the previous parliament that was dominated by people in the 50 year and above age group.

In addition to this, their educational levels are also promising. Out of the 102 women in the current parliament, 94 have a university degree or higher. Only eight women are senior high school graduates.

It is these two factors that actually represent a huge capital for women to have a louder and better voice in parliament. It is this capital that makes Eva remain optimistic about the majority of elected legislative members. Although they do not have experience, surely everyone needs to go through process of learning.

“I needed six months before I was able to understand and know what I had to do”, said Eva.

A similar sense of optimism and hope was also revealed in the survey. Women politicians in the current parliament are still capable of performing better. At lest this conviction was reflected by 62 percent of respondents who said they had heard that these women politicians are already fighting for women’s interests in Indonesia. (Litbang Kompas)

[Translated by James Balowski.]