Women Struggle Alone to Reach Parliament

Female participation in Parliament is necessary. Credits: Reuters/Beawiharta

Female participation in Parliament is necessary. Credits: Reuters/Beawiharta

At dawn of May 21st  2019, the Indonesian Election Commission announced the results of the controversial presidential and legislative elections, which were held simultaneously for the first time in the world’s largest Muslim population.

The results named Joko Widodo, former Jakarta Governor, as the winner of the 2019 presidential elections. He led with more than 10% of the vote when compared with his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, who is the former son-in-law of the late President General Suharto and has been accused of complicity in human rights abuses committed under the Suharto era.

Despite the Independent election monitors claiming that the elections were free and fair, Prabowo insinuates electoral fraud before, during and after the elections. Last week, thousands of protestors thronged the capital city of Jakarta in support of Prabowo’s accusations of electoral frauds. Reports say that at least six people were killed and 200 injured in acts of vandalism and violent protests.

Eva Sundari

Eva Sundari

Whilst the core issues of these elections were economy, infrastructure and corruption, like many countries around the world, Indonesia is also witnessing a trend of rising discrimination, hostility and violence based on religion or belief. In the past, minorities in Indonesia have often faced backlash of some form and with the rise of conservative Muslim voices in the country, the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief is under stress. Various civil society actors point to the 2019 elections vividly displaying religious and ethnic differences and identity politics of the region.

Amongst the intolerant discourse that has taken center-stage during the last few weeks of campaigning and elections, little has been said about the situation of women parliamentarians in the country.

A record number of women MPs competed in Indonesia's legislative election last month, but they continue to face a battle to make their voices heard. From uncommitted political parties to lack of female party leadership, there exist several barriers for women MPs to make it to the top, sometimes even to secure their seats in parliament.

‘I feel hopeless with the current system’

Jull Takaliuang

Jull Takaliuang

In the latest elections in Indonesia, 9 out of the 10 largest political parties saw an increase of 2-3% in the numbers of officially listed female parliamentarian candidates. Even the most reductionist [1] party, such as the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) , listed female candidates up to 39%.[2]

Does this mean that the 30% quota for women in parliament has been achieved? Numbers can often obscure social realities. Based on the vote-count, the number of women MPs in parliament was predicted to increase by 3% from 17.32% in 2014. Not only is this 3% increase far from meeting the quota law but it also does not reflect the quality of the elected female MPs.[3]

Nevertheless, in this election the political discourse around the quota system for women has been stronger. There were almost no attacks or campaigns against female candidates who were in support of both presidential candidates. The attacks that did take place were usually against a candidate’s religion or political stance, something that has become more popular over the years.

Eva Sundari who served as an MP for three terms, failed to secure her seat this election. Dishearten by the rampant money politics and the black campaigns against her, she said, “an Islamic cleric has provoked the people to sabotage my campaign”.[4]

Jull Takaliuang, a prominent woman human rights activist of North Sulawesi Province also failed to secure a seat. She said that many of the potential votes were changed overnight before the election day. She cannot hide her disappointment with the system that failed her.[5]

“I feel hopeless with the current system that allows widespread money politics. If we don’t have money to pay for our own witnesses during the tabulation of votes, our votes would become dinner for other candidates. There should be stronger commitment from political parties and the Election Commission to look for better solutions’’[6]

Open party lists: a cautious game for female MPs

Eva Sundari affirms that there are some positive effects of the quota system at a practical level, but it is still a long way ahead. Indonesia adopted open party lists since 2004 . In an open list system, political parties select candidates and their order on the ballot; but voters, not party officials, determine which candidates are elected from the ballot.  Many believe that the position of women in the ballot list, not voter preference itself, prevent many women from being elected to office.

On the ballot, 62% of the members of the current Indonesian People’s Representative Council appeared first and 17% appeared second [7].  However, most female candidates were placed in the third position, the lowest rank permitted under law. Thus, making their chances even more skewered. In such situations, it is usually the party leadership that makes the final decision on their candidates and where they will contest from.

Hari Putri Lestari with Erma Susanti

Hari Putri Lestari with Erma Susanti

Often, the trail to be granted number one in the open list is predictable. Usually, it would be key party leadership (national, provincial and district level), wives and daughters of party leaders, celebrities, and those related to politicians, party leaders, or politically influential business people who more than often are not party members themselves.

Hari Putri Lestari who ran three times, finally won and reserved a provincial seat this election. She has served her party, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) for more than 15 years and experienced several barriers within the party. Eventually, she was granted first place on the ballot, but in the final days of the list to be confirmed by the Election Commission, she was moved to number two on the ballot by party officials.

“I told them, if you move me to number two, I will withdraw my candidacy along with the candidacy of 6 other women”. Facing the chance of not being able to contest elections in two different districts, the party officials let her keep the first place on the ballot [8].    

Fortunate cases

While the 2019 elections in Indonesia have been difficult to maneuver for female parliamentarians, the situation is not all that bad, at least for Hikmah Bawaqih, the head of East Java Fatayat (the women wing of Nahdlatul Ulama) who served as the Head of the governor campaign and won the provincial seat this election.

“Considering my long years of hard work and service for the party, I am fortunate to be granted the first position on the party list this time. ‘’, said Bawaqih.

For her, success in elections not only depends on the party list position but also in the creation of an effective and strategic election campaign. ‘‘I mostly relied on appropriate strategies, especially understanding the character of my electoral base. I carefully studied the character of the voters, calculated the allocation of my energy and identified the problems and resources of the base.’’, adds Bawaqih.

While election funding is an issue since many candidates use their own money, Bawaqih notes, ‘regardless how much money we have, if a campaign is not strategically planned, that money would not be beneficial”. [9] This view is also acknowledged by Erma Susanti, a long-time women rights activist and is in the same party as Eva Sundari. She too won from her constituency after previously running three times [10].

What’s next?

Hikmah Bawaqih Credits: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Hikmah Bawaqih Credits: UN Women/Ryan Brown

In Indonesia, it is observed that political parties not only have significant leverage in determining the proportion of women who will be elected but also, have control over the number of women who will be placed on ballots. With there being a lack of gender sensitivity within political party culture, procedures are not always followed. How can this be changed?

In order to have a robust quota system, clear regulations and robust sanctions need to be put into place, such as provisioning an Annex to the Article 173 of Election Law (No.7/2017), where the Election Commission requires political parties to submit an annual report on the women’s political empowerment program, as well as to submit the annual program 5 years ahead, as evidence of the parties’ commitment to enforce the law, otherwise, they cannot contest elections in the respective provinces.

One of the upcoming slogans of the global women’s rights movement is ‘the future is female’. In the case of Indonesia, we must wait and watch!


*Siti Nurjanah is the Director of Women and Youth Institute of Development of Indonesia (WYDII) and a Resident Scholar at Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University (WSRC), United States.


[1] Religious reductionism generally attempts to explain religion by explaining it in terms of nonreligious causes. I use the word reductionist rather than extremist, radical or conservative because it is my subtle way of saying that the PKS is a party that harbors extremists views.

[2] Data from General Election Commission of 2019 Elections

[3] These numbers are still changing and to be finalized by the Election Commission at the end of May.

[4] Eva Sundari (an MP member of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle–PDIP), phone interview, April 30th, 2019

[5]Jull Takaliuang, (a Regional Representative Council–DPD candidate of North Sulawesi Province), phone interview, May 6th, 2019

[6] ibid 

[7]Data from General Election Commission of 2014 Elections

[8] Hari Putri Lestari (an upcoming Provincial Legislative Member of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle–PDIP), phone interview, May 2nd, 2019  

[9] Hikmah Bawaqih, (an upcoming Provincial Legislative Member of National Awakening Party–PKB), phone interview, May 7th, 2019

[10] Erma Susanti (an upcoming Provincial Legislative Member of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle–PDIP), phone interview, May 4nd, 2019