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POLITICS-INDONESIA: More Women Lawmakers, But Change Not Their Agenda

Fabio Scarpello

DENPASAR, Indonesia, May 18 2009 (IPS) - Indonesia’s direct legislative election in April was a resounding success for women candidates. But instead of rejoicing, activists and political observers say it is unlikely to help the cause of women’s rights.

Voting in the April elections Credit: Fabio Scarpello/IPS

Voting in the April elections Credit: Fabio Scarpello/IPS

Titi Sumbung, executive director of the Indonesia Center for Women in Politics (ICWIP), says more women in the legislature are welcome, but the majority of female lawmakers lack political experience. The non-governmental ICWIP aims to promote gender equity in the country.

"We are pleased with the result, especially because it was unexpected," Sumbung remarks. "But it seems that women with a proven track record in defending women’s issues did not manage to win seats, while actresses, singers and relatives of powerful politicians did."

Results of the Apr. 9 poll showed a significant increase in the female legislators – from 11.8 percent to between 17 and 19 percent in the 560-member House.

This is a new record in Indonesia, a majority-Muslim country, where politics is often seen as a male preserve. The previous highest representation of women lawmakers was 13 percent, achieved in the 1987-92 legislature.

Advise From Old to New

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana is a veteran lawyer-activist-politician with an impressive track record in advocating legal justice and human rights protection for women in Indonesia.

She is the work group coordinator of Indonesia's NGO Forum on Women, a member of the National Commission on Violence against Women, and a parliamentarian with the National Awakening Party (PKB), among many other things.

Yet, she lost her seat in the House in the April election. In an interview with IPS she says that "competence" is the key if the new female lawmakers want to be heard in the House.

IPS: What do you think was the reason for your defeat in the election?

NURSYAHBANI KATJASUNGKANA: Several reasons contributed. But I guess the main one was my party's decision to have me competing in districts with very strong Islamic traditions, where my background was not fully appreciated. I competed in the regencies of Banyuwangi, Situbondo, and Bondowoso, East Java. The distance from Jakarta made it also difficult to travel there often.

IPS: What were your poll promises?

NK: I campaigned for women's rights and curbing corruption. But since I was competing in agrarian districts, I also emphasised the need to fight for land issues. I am a lawyer and I could have helped in that too.

IPS: What is your advice to the new, female parliamentarians? Most of them are said to be lacking in experience.

NK: There is no school for politicians. You learn by doing it. They will learn by taking part in the life of the House. They must be self-critical, accept their weaknesses and work on them. It is very important that they build their competence. In order to lobby people, they need to have a good and strong argument. They could achieve this by reading but also by interacting with civil society. Only when they become competent, will they be taken seriously.

IPS: What should women’s activists who want to compete in the next election, in 2014, be doing?

NK: It is important that they start preparing now. They need to create a relationship with the people, and they need support from the party too. It is much better if the party lets them contest the election in the area where they come from.

The Center for Electoral Reform (Cetro), an independent electoral watchdog, estimates that roughly 95 women are likely to be lawmakers, compared to 63 before the elections. The increase defied experts’ predictions of a decline in the number of female legislators.

This pessimism followed a change in the electoral law that cancelled the "party list system". The old "half-open" system required that at least one of a party’s three winning candidates in an electoral region must be female.

The election was instead contested on the basis that only those who received the most votes – regardless of gender – were guaranteed a seat in the House.

Women with political connections, or famous names in show business thus managed to gather many votes. Women’s activists who wanted to take their fight into the political arena, failed at the polls because they were not as well known or flush with funds to challenge the prejudices inherent in a patriarchal society like Indonesia.

Among the new female legislators is the daughter of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Puan Maharani, as well as the wives and children of several leading politicians. Also soon to sit in the House is Surakarta Sultanate Princess Koes Moertiyah, former Miss Indonesia Angelina Sondakh and two actresses, Rieke Diah Pitaloka and Nurul Arifin.

Among these, only Sondakh has had previous experience in the House, where she was elected in 2004. But over the past five years, she has failed to impress and has not shone for her drive to force any of the issues that would improve the status of women on to the political agenda.

Some of the urgent concerns are regarding the dismal educational levels of girls, serious domestic violence and an alarming maternal mortality level that puts Indonesia at the top of the list of countries with the highest death rate in Southeast Asia. Almost 20,000 women die every year nationwide in pregnancy and birth related complications. ICWIP’s Sumbung believes the new legislators need to improve their competence in assessing whether the House policies are gender-sensitive. "The only thing that we can do is to work hard to support them, so that hopefully they can better represent women," she says.

Fachry Ali, a Jakarta-based political analyst, remains pessimistic about the legislature’s commitment to gender equality.

He says that female members of political dynasties are likely to follow in the footsteps of their fathers or husbands. Moreover, most of the new women legislators have no experience of women’s issues.

"The wives or daughters of politicians bring with them the seeds of the patriarchal culture," he observes. "Despite the commitment of civil society, I am afraid the situation is not going to change any time soon."

There may be exceptions. Pitaloka, 35, a new lawmaker from the Democrat Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is well known across Indonesia as a star of ‘sinetron’ or the nationally produced soap operas.

"I am excited at the prospect, but also very anxious," says Diah, who has a Masters degree in Philosophy from the University of Indonesia in 2004. A campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace since 2006, she was also part of the PDI-P’s women’s empowerment department for the last two years.

"I try to be optimistic that the women who have been elected, including me, can bring a gender-perspective to the House. But I am hoping that women’s issues are going to be of interest to all legislators," she told IPS.

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