When Diah Pitaloka took over the youth wing of Indonesia’s third-biggest political party two years ago, her male colleagues addressed her as “Pak,” which in Indonesian means “Mr.”
“Maybe they still want a man to lead them,” said Pitaloka, 35, who plans to run in next year’s legislative elections for the first time as a member of former President Megawati Soekarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. “The fact is, I beat them. I told them it’s ok, you can call me anything -- I’m still a woman.”
The world’s most populous Muslim country will now penalize political parties that fail to meet a requirement for females to make up at least 30 percent of candidates in the elections as it seeks to halt a widening divide between the sexes. Indonesia ranked 97th of 135 countries last year on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, down from 90th in 2011.
The names of female candidates will appear more prominently on voting forms and parties will face disqualification in districts where they don’t meet the quota, according to a law amended last year.
“It’s setting a good example in terms of really getting this into the whole political process,” Noeleen Heyzer, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, said of Indonesia’s enforcement of the quota. “There’s a lot that can be done to improve gender equality and women’s empowerment in the country.”
Indonesia slipped in the World Economic Forum’s rankings because of a decline in the number of women in ministerial positions, according to its report. The country of about 250 million people ranked on par with Iran in the UN’s Gender Inequality Index last year.
Among Indonesia’s most prominent female politicians are the daughters of former presidents. Megawati, who lost the last two presidential elections to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is the daughter of Soekarno, the country’s first president who took power after declaring independence from the Netherlands in 1945.
“It gives us a cloak of influence because we’re able to knock on the door and people will open the doors because of the last name,” Yenny Wahid, the daughter of Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s fourth president, who also heads a political party, said in an interview. “The 30 percent quota is a big help because parties have no choice but to accommodate women.”
In 1990, the UN recommended that women hold 30 percent of leadership positions by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. The global average now is 21 percent, according to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Females now hold about 19 percent of the 560 seats in Indonesia’s lower house of parliament, putting the nation 75th among 189 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Achieving 30 percent participation would boost Indonesia to 30th overall and the third-highest in Asia after Timor Leste and Nepal, the statistics show.
During the reigns of Soekarno and Suharto, an authoritarian ruler who stepped down amid street protests in 1998, female lawmakers made up 13 percent or less of parliament in any given five-year span. A 2003 law stipulating a non-compulsory quota for women to make up 30 percent of candidate lists had little effect, with women winning 11 percent of seats in an election the following year.
While the number increased further after the 2009 election to about 18 percent, lawmakers amended the election law last year to force parties to comply with the quota in each of the nation’s 77 electoral districts.
All of the 12 parties eligible to run in next year’s election initially complied with the quota, compared with almost none in the previous election, according to Hadar Gumay, a member of the General Elections Commission. While five parties were subsequently disqualified in certain districts after eight candidates were deemed ineligible, they will likely be able to replace them, he said.
“Before, there is no penalty at all -- they just announce it and that’s it,” Gumay said. “If we don’t apply this regulation, I think there will be a lot of political parties that just ignore the quota.”
The affirmative action program is designed to combine opportunity with merit, according to Mari Elka Pangestu, minister for tourism and creative economy who is one of four women in Yudhoyono’s 37-member cabinet. Then-Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati stepped down in 2010 to become managing director of the World Bank.
“Affirmative action is to give the opportunity for the women to run for office in parliament, but whether or not they win is still based on whether they can win votes,” Pangestu said in an interview.
Under Indonesia’s electoral rules, voters pick from lists of candidates divided by districts. Since those at the top of the list often win seats, the new rules require every third nominee to be a woman.
Because only 12 parties will run in next year’s election, down from 38 in the 2009 election, candidates will need more than just name recognition to win seats, said Meutya Hafid, a former television journalist and a lawmaker with the Golkar party. In 2009, winning candidates included actress Rachel Maryam Sayidina and singer Theresia Ebenna Ezeria Pardede, who resigned last year to finish her master’s thesis.
“Before it’s like thousands of names, so these women first have to get their name noticed,” Hafid said. “But now it’s not good enough to be able to make people know your name -- they also have to know your background.”
Pitaloka, who heads the youth wing of Megawati’s party in West Java province, said her team has advised her to avoid talking directly about women’s issues on the campaign trail. Her strategy is to focus on topics that overwhelmingly affect women, such as creating jobs for poor families.
“People don’t like the word feminist, and they don’t like people who talk mostly about women,” Pitaloka said, adding that she’s still optimistic females will make up at least a quarter of the parliament after the elections.
Even so, she says, the number of women in parliament isn’t as important as the quality.
“Many people still believe that women are not capable as leaders and not trained to be good decision makers,” Pitaloka said. “The important thing is to have women who can influence the parliament’s decisions.”