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The road to parliament is filled with obstacles for Indonesian women.

On the same page? In Indonesia, some male lawmakers are sceptical of quotas for women in politics

Women make up more than half of Indonesia’s population, but their representation in politics in the past decade has been meagre and unsteady.

To increase women’s representation in politics, Indonesia introduced a minimum quota for female political candidates in 2003. And parties have been nominating more women to run since the 2004 elections. But, the percentage of women lawmakers is still far below the 30% expected quota.

In a recently published paper, I explored how lawmakers think about the issue of gender quotas and what they think are the roots of women’s underrepresentation in politics.

Using a questionnaire involving 104 representatives (54 male and 50 female), I found significant differences in how male and female lawmakers responded. They differ in their reasoning on why women struggle to win elections. They also have different opinions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the gender quota policy.

These distinctions matter because they offer insights into the dynamics explaining why gender quotas are not resulting in a notable increase in women’s parliamentary representation. The study suggests the implementation of a gender quota does not necessarily imply that both men and women recognise gender inequality as a problem that requires a fix. It reaffirms previous studies that the quota approach is accepted at the macro level, but heavily contested at the micro level.

Women’s representation and gender quotas

Women hold only 17.1% of the seats in the national parliament (House of Representatives or Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat/DPR). Low representation occurs at all levels of government. In 2014 women won on average 16.14% of seats in provincial parliaments and 14% of seats in city/municipal councils.

Since 2002, Indonesia has gradually introduced gender quotas. The country now has a number of electoral candidate quota sets regulated under the laws on political parties and general elections:

  1. parties are encouraged to have 30% women on their boards
  2. parties must fill at least 30% of their candidates list with women.

In 2009, the Indonesian Elections Commission (KPU) introduced the semi-zipper requirement – for each three candidates there should be at least one female nominee. The result was significant.

In the 2009 legislative elections, the percentage of female candidates increased. Almost all parties filled the 30% quota. That year, women’s electability peaked at 18.12%.

In 2014, the commission began enforcing sanctions on parties that failed to comply with the zipper system.

Research suggests these electoral candidate quotas, accompanied by sanctions for non-compliance, are significant enough to force adherence. This should have a positive effect on women’s general electability. But it has yet to work consistently in Indonesia.

Some argue that the main culprit is the open-list proportional representation (PR) system, in which voters can choose a candidate from anywhere on the party’s list rather than just voting for a party. The electoral system creates fierce competition among candidates, increasing the cost of campaigning. This significantly hampers women candidates with limited access to funds.

Survey participants

My research draws on nine months of survey administered with help from WikiDPR. It involves 104 respondents, or 18.57% of sitting legislators.

The range of ages in this study is 29 to 79. The median and mean ages are 53 and 51.53 respectively. This resembles the actual range in the DPR. Both the youngest and oldest legislators participated in this survey.

Participants represented 63 of 77 electoral districts, a coverage level of 81.81%. The sample also covers all 11 commissions in the parliament.

Most respondents (14.4%) sit in Commission 8 (religious, social, and women’s empowerment affairs), followed by Commission 5, which oversees communications, telecommunications, public works, public housing affairs, acceleration of development of disadvantaged regions (13.46%). Commission 2 (home affairs, regional autonomy, administrative reforms and agrarian affairs) and Commission 10 (education, youth, sport, tourism, arts and cultural affairs) each contribute 12.5% of the participants.

Legitimacy and effectiveness of quotas

Gender quotas in Indonesia are still widely accepted by legislatures. But there is a gap of about 11% between the two sexes.

Most female respondents view quotas as useful to improve the quality of Indonesian democracy. They don’t see the gender quota reinforcing difference between men and women. In fact, the women believed quotas had helped their electability over the years.

In contrast, men are not as convinced. Some 20% of them view quotas as having no impact on women’s chances to win. They suggest there are various obstacles to nominating women into parliament and that quotas alone cannot solve these issues.

Both men and women agree that that gender quotas have strong legitimacy rooted in the principle of equality set forth in Indonesia’s Constitution.

It seems that after being adopted for more than a decade, gender quotas remain the preferred approach to overcoming women’s low parliamentary representation, at least in the Indonesian case.

However, several factors, such as political parties, cultural barriers and women’s internal preferences, affect the affirmative action’s effectiveness.

How men and women analyse women’s low representation

My research found that most male legislators believe that parties’ difficulty in attracting qualified women to run for elections is the obstacle to increasing the numbers of women in politics. They believe women are prioritising family over a political career and that cultural, religious and social constraints work against female candidates as these make women less desirable to voters.

Meanwhile, female legislators consider social values and customs that prefer male leaders hurt women’s political nomination the most. They also view women’s lack of political training, social capital and campaign funds as obstacles for women entering politics.

Neither men nor women think the latter need to have more role models who can inspire them to pursue a political career.

Men and women differ significantly in their perception of parties’ genuine interest in fulfilling quotas. Women consider quotas are only being fulfilled as a prerequisite for a party to run; that parties are not genuine in promoting women into parliament.

This can be partly explained by observing how few women are being nominated as candidate number one in the candidates list. Only 5.7% of female aspirants are given the top position compared to 18.9% of male candidates. And 76% of female respondents think parties should put more women as candidate number 1 or 2 to promote an increase in female representation in parliament.

To overcome the disparity between women and men in political representation, it is important to observe and to note how men and women view this issue. The two sexes, at the micro level, have contesting opinions on what really hinders women’s attempts to get elected. Thus implementing gender quotas, at the macro level, might not achieve the expected results while other obstacles remain unresolved.

Among Indonesian lawmakers, the nation’s political representatives, my research shows there is a gender gap. While women overwhelmingly support quotas as a strategy to overcome women’s underrepresentation, some men are sceptical about its effectiveness.

Fortunately, both men and women legislators agree that parties need to be more transparent in their recruitment methods. They also agree that, where possible, parties should financially assist women who have a substantial opportunity to win.

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