Thu, 25 Dec 2003


Urgent steps to increase women's political representation

Make political parties democratic and accountable; amend the law on political parties and rule that 30 percent of parties' legislative candidates must be women.

These are among the urgent measures to be taken in the near future -- the latter only feasible after the 2004 elections -- to overcome the major stumbling blocks to increasing women's higher political representation and to enable their meaningful role in decision making.

Ani Soetjipto and Francisia, or Eri, Seda conveyed these measures amid their anger over the predicament of a number of women from the Golkar Party, who felt they had been betrayed. The women had reported to the institution where they work, the Center for Electoral Reform (Cetro), that the party's central board had promised that they would be on the top of the legislative candidate list. But from consultations with party executives they had gathered that their position had moved lower down the list, thus reducing their chances of being elected.

"The evaluation process must be made transparent," said the head of Golkar's women's division, Juniwati M. Sofwan. The undemocratic nature of political parties has been cited as among the many major obstacles to reform. The power of the central board to determine legislative candidates is just one example.

To avoid this, researchers had suggested that the legislative candidate list be made into a "zigzagging" pattern, alternating between men and women, such as implemented by the Social Democrat Party in Sweden. A week ahead of the deadline of Dec. 22 for parties to submit legislative candidate lists to the General Elections Commission, this suggestion had not been taken up and Golkar's women candidates were among the first to cry foul.

Possible reasons for the oversight ranged from "money politics" to sheer discrimination. Though the practice was predictable, and not limited to Golkar, "I still can't accept the reality," Ani said.

Ani and Eri, lecturers at the University of Indonesia, predict that the national representation of women in the House of Representatives next year will continue to decline. In 1992 the percentage of women in the House was 12.5 percent, after the 1999 elections, the percentage dropped to 9 percent. The few women who do get elected, they say, "will likely be those who follow the party line".

Then the quota, which so many women have struggled for, "would be a boomerang," Ani said. People would point out the female legislators and say, "that's what happens when you designate a quota for women."

It may be even harder to advocate for a change in the law and make the quota a requirement, punishing parties which do not comply. But the activists say there has been enough proof to show that mere encouragement toward affirmative action -- which aims for a level playing field among men and women in politics -- does not work.

In the face of all constraints, Cetro and other organizations supporting women candidates, must nevertheless continue to do what they can: to help inform, educate and support the few women candidates who are willing to learn -- while inside the candidates may be trembling in the face of the wild new world of politics.

Among other "mentoring" sessions, candidates are told to study beforehand the characteristics of their precise constituents, which could be traced to the areas which were the mass base of their political parties in the 1999 elections.

In the equally tight period ahead of elections, voters' education is grossly lacking, given the delayed passing of the laws needed in preparation for the elections. In a number of simulations potential voters made many mistakes -- confused as they were by the new system -- and hence many votes will likely be invalid.

Information campaigns through audio visual means on the electoral system are particularly needed for busy women who cannot afford to attend long meetings, not even to hear how important choosing women is. Illiteracy and low education levels pose further constraints. Another factor is that women's votes are often influenced by male members.

Political party members also need education, being equally "illiterate" or discriminative against women, while candidates are dependent on parties starting at the district level, to place them at the top of their legislative candidate lists.

For the women candidates who are elected, there is the need for education and support in the face of the "ways of politics", which risk reinforcing perceptions that politics is a dirty business. Researchers meanwhile point out the obvious advantages of paying attention to the majority of voters -- women -- estimated to make up 52 percent of the electorate.

A nationwide survey recently released by the Jakarta-based Asia Foundation, among other research, points out the issues that women are interested in: Easier access to loans, education for girls, family planning and jobs were among the issues that most female respondents were attracted to.

The sociologist, Eri Seda, points out some other short-term steps based on discussions also involving Cetro. Networking must be strengthened among women's groups, political parties, legislative bodies and the media. An awareness of how society would be better off without the unnecessary suffering caused by various inequalities, should be instilled through training in institutions -- such as legislative bodies (apart from the political parties).

To strengthen women already holding public posts, she said, further training is needed in lobbying and campaigning, and in participation in political discussions and institutions.

Also, assistance should be provided for political parties committed to promoting gender equality through their political platforms and internal political structures.

Such measures would help facilitate opportunities and access for women to gain equal leverage in competing as candidates for political posts and in playing a meaningful role when in power.

"Even male candidates without experience, money and an existing network have a hard time, let alone women," Eri said.