In the 2019 general elections, Indonesian voters elected 118 women to the Indonesian House of Representatives (DPR). Although an increase from 2014, when just 97 women were elected, women still only account for 21 per cent of the 575-member parliament. That means women’s political representation in Indonesia remains lower than the 30 per cent candidate quota imposed by the Law on Elections No. 10, 2008.
There are several factors frustrating women’s political representation including voter beliefs about women’s leadership, gendered processes of candidate selection in political parties and the low numbers of women holding senior positions in the civil service.
However, the possibility of improving women’s political representation in the upcoming February 2024 elections will also depend on overcoming arguably the biggest impediment to their election: money.
Money as a barrier to women’s political representation
In focus group discussions held four months after the 2019 elections in Jakarta and Medan, women candidates lamented that the only thing necessary to be elected was ‘isi ni tas?’ – how much money is in your bag?
It is no secret that contesting elections in Indonesia can be eye-wateringly expensive. The open-list system turns elections into what Nadirsyah Hosen describes as ‘The Hunger Games’ in which candidates must out-compete (and out-bid) others, including from their own party. Cash and gifts – increasingly expected by voters – is one way to stand apart and demonstrate commitment. This, of course, increases the need for major financial backing.
High campaign costs disproportionately impact female candidates globally. Women have less wealth, lower incomes, and face greater challenges in mobilising funds from family or political donors. Indonesian women are similarly disadvantaged, as gender ideologies position women foremost as housewives, thereby constraining their professional opportunities.
Women’s underrepresentation at senior levels in the civil service is also significant given the importance of access to government resources in clientelist politics. As parties provide minimal or no support to nominees, individual candidates must bear expenses themselves. These conditions favour women (and men) from wealthy, celebrity or dynastic backgrounds.
An alternative route to election
Yet there are examples of female (and male candidates) winning in 2019 without resorting to expensive campaigns. Research from Central Java shows how women candidates had an advantage when they ran as, and for women, and by drawing upon extensive women’s networks. In West Sumatra, for example, women’s NGOs played an influential role supporting women candidates through training to overcome money politics and broker access to women’s networks.
Our research on women elected as representatives in North Sumatera found that many substantially lowered costs through long-term relationship-building and electoral practices, such as household visits, that achieve the same symbolic and practical ends as cash transfers, without the added financial expense. Indeed, rather than cash and gifts being an unavoidable electoral strategy, they argued it was used as a short-cut by candidates who had not put in the time to ‘sow and harvest’ relationships in their constituency.
The problem, however, remains two-fold. First, candidates must compete against candidates taking these short-cuts. Examples of successful and relatively cheap (but never costless) campaigns are perhaps still the exception.
Second, and in our opinion more importantly, the perception that expensive campaigns are unavoidable discourages credible candidates from stepping forward in the first place. Our conversations with women who are local leaders but who have never contested an election, shows how this perception makes them reluctant to build their careers in a way that would make the transition from grassroots social action to electoral politics a possibility.
Winning elections requires long-term investments of time, finances and emotions. These are investments many women are unwilling to make so long as the perception remains that campaigns are unaffordable, and hence unwinnable.
Increasing women’s representation
It is too early to tell if the perception that one needs a lot of money to run a successful campaign will continue in the 2024 election. The decision of the Indonesian Constitutional court in June 2023 to continue the open-list system seems to be a blow to advocates seeking to reduce the influence of money in Indonesia’s democracy.
This year also marks the second ever simultaneous general election in Indonesia – including both presidential and legislative elections – and the impact of this change for women’s representation is still uncertain. Focus group participants told us in 2019 it had a negative impact on their ability to cut through the noise of the presidential election, thereby increasing costs. However, in 2022, women also said they benefited if they were from the same party as a presidential candidate and positioned first on the ballot.
Yet electoral cultures are not static. Voters are savvy, and already candidates need to put in place measures to ensure promises to vote a certain way in return for cash or gifts are upheld. Promoting narratives that it is possible to win elections on the cheap may challenge the perception that distributing cash is unavoidable and effective – and that would have the potential to slowly transform electoral practices.
Changes to the culture of money politics would, however, take several electoral cycles to affect women’s representation. In the meantime, campaign financing for women in other democratic contexts increase the viability of women’s candidacies. Campaigns are never free, and some financial support would be valuable in Indonesia, yet when the ‘sky is the limit’ in terms of expenditure, campaign financing cannot be the only solution.
Rather we advocate identifying potential candidates early and guiding them in building careers in community action that sow the right seeds for a transition into a political career. This way they have the potential to become viable candidates in the future, without resorting to money politics.
Neither path to increase women’s representation – transforming electoral cultures or enabling women to better manoeuvre within them – are quick fixes, or even certain to have the desired result. But what is certain is that addressing women’s political representation requires attention be paid to the gendered impacts of Indonesia’s expensive elections.