Indonesia’s Story on Bringing Women Into Parliament

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Women’s representation in Indonesia’s parliament has seen its ups and downs but has improved over time overall. For some years, the proportion of women in Indonesia’s parliament was dismal. Despite affirmative action, it hovered around 10 percent. With democratization beginning in 1998, however, the movement for women’s representation has picked up momentum and visibility. (After the resignation of President Suharto from office in 1998, Indonesia embarked on democratization. The democratic elections in 1999 produced a new parliament, and subsequently elections have been held and parliaments formed every five years.)

Supporters were able to lobby for the inclusion of a provision in the Election Law passed in 2004 requiring all political parties to apply a 30 percent quota for women to their candidate list. The provision lacked teeth, resulting in only a few parties adhering to it, but it was considered a historic achievement in Indonesia. It generated an awareness that, as a first step, resulted in increasing the proportion of women representatives in the national parliament by 25 percent in 2004.

Even more significant results were produced in 2009. The new election law passed in 2008 combined a 30 percent quota for party lists with a ‘zipper’ system in which for every three candidates fielded by political parties, at least one had to be a woman. But the Constitutional Court in late 2008 issued a ruling that negated the quota and required the election wholly by the popular vote. While the decision was meant to curb the power of political parties and transfer it to the voters, it effectively dismantled affirmative action for women representatives. Many women’s activists expressed pessimism about any possibility of increasing women’s representation.

Amidst this setback, however, the affirmative action debate generated greater interest in the issue of women’s representation, and galvanized the efforts of different stakeholders. Civil society organizations launched activities to spread awareness of the importance of having a gender-balanced parliament. These efforts were backed by a number of political parties and some government agencies, such as the State Ministry on Women’s Empowerment, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the General Election Commission. UNDP and bilateral donors also actively supported the efforts of Indonesian stakeholders through civil society voters’ education initiatives, media campaigns, and public consultations among political parties, academics and civil society.

The results took even activists by surprise. Many more parties took the 30 percent quota seriously, even in the absence of legislation. As many as 70 percent of the 38 parties competing in the 2009 election nominated women for more than 30 percent of their candidates. The election has considerably increased the number of women in parliament – shattering the 100 seats ceiling in the DPR (Lower House).

Though still below the 30 percent mark that many activists set as their target, women’s representation in the two chambers of Parliament has never been higher. The share of women representatives in the DPR has increased by 63 percent. (In 2002, the Indonesian Constitution was amended so as to establish another chamber in the Indonesian parliament. The House of House of Regional Representatives – DPD – was meant to function like the Senate in other countries, representing the interests of administrative regions. But in Indonesia’s case, the DPD’s authority is limited to consultative rather than legislative functions.) In the newly constituted upper house, the House of Regions or DPD where only individuals may be candidates the increase was 77 percent. This brought women’s membership to 27.3 percent, or just three percent shy of the 30 percent target. It suggests that political party reform may be a policy aim.

The Indonesian experience shows that even when the affirmative action quota is removed, once public attention and awareness is generated around the issue, change in attitudes can successfully push the agenda forward by increasing real public support for women’s representation. The achievement also reveals that the voters in the world’s largest Muslim nation have no qualms about supporting women in politics, thus negating the stereotype commonly associated with Islamic religious belief. Indonesia’s strides in this sphere are admirable and deserve support, so that women’s share is closer to half in future elections.

Excerpted from ‘Power, Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific, 2010 (UNDP/Macmillan)