Where are the women?

Representation in Parliament

Representation of women in Parliament. DH Graphics

Two major democracies are in the midst of a transition of power. India, the world’s largest democracy, has been in the throes of elections since April 11, and voting ends on May 19. Indonesia, the third largest democracy, had the world’s biggest one-day elections — presidential, parliamentary and regional, all on the same day, on April 17.

India has a massive 900 million voters choosing their representatives from among 8,000 candidates for 543 Lok Sabha seats. Indonesia had 192.8 million voters, who exercised their options for 20,538 legislative seats, including 575 seats for the house of representatives or DPR, from among 2.5 lakh contestants from its 20 national and four regional parties.

Now, how have women, constituting almost 50% of the population in these two populous, ethnically and linguistically diverse countries, fared in their respective countries in terms of sharing political power?

Indonesia currently is ranked at 114 among 193 countries, as per the rankings of the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU), in women’s representation in parliament. It had an abysmally low 5.06% representation in the first election in 1955. In 2003, Indonesia introduced a minimum gender quota of 30% in party lists of candidates, when the country undertook several legal reforms after the fall of the Suharto regime. The next election in 2004 had 14 of the 24 political parties fulfilling the quota norms, which led to a rise in the women’s share of seats in the DPR to 11.6%.

In 2009, the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU) introduced the ‘semi-zipper’ system, requiring every political party to place one female candidate for every three candidates, which catapulted the women’s share of seats to 18.12%, the highest ever in its parliament. In 2014, the KPU took measures against non-compliance and imposed sanctions on erring political parties. Women candidates that year numbered 2,467 out of 6,576 total candidates, slightly over 37%, which has now risen to 3,200, out of 7,985 candidates — about 40% — in the 2019 elections. The women’s seat share in the 2014 parliament was 17.32%, which is “likely to remain stagnant in 2019 elections,” commented an incumbent MP. 

Thus, women in Indonesia, despite the existence of gender quotas in party lists for over a decade, have failed to secure even 30% seats in parliament. Women scholars and researchers admit that it has given “some leeway to women’s entry to parliament,” but lamented that “electability is not at a high enough rate.” Some say that political parties regard it as an “indemnity to cash out on electoral benefits” and to fulfil quota norms, but “no serious thought is given to candidate selection.”

A study has found that 41.7% of women elected in 2009 were “heiresses of political dynasties” and not from the ‘party structure’, and that “political parties often resort to parachuting in female celebrities.” These slipshod actions have engendered a “political oligarchy, and bred unqualified women leaders who could hardly take up genuine women’s issues in parliament,” it opined. However, some political leaders, feel that it is “difficult to find” suitable female candidates and that the rate of electability is “relatively low.”

Political analysts contend that both the earlier practice of completely ‘closed lists’ of candidates and the existing ‘open list’ system had gone against the interests of women. The former created “a race for top slots on the ballots and use of money power,” while the current one focuses on the “maximum vote-winning party candidates, regardless of his/her position on the ballot or gender.” Moreover, though the present ‘open list’ system has delinked winnability and the placement of candidates on the ballots, “men still continue to dominate the top slots.”

In the April elections, only 19% of women were found in the first position on the ballots. It also saw the electoral hype on “the power of ‘emak-emak’, dubbed by a renowned feminist scholar as a sign of retrograde thinking and reflective of a “new order of stereotyped gender roles,” which surely does not augur well for women in Indonesia.

Below average candidature

India is at a lowly rank of 149 on the IPU list. The outgoing Lok Sabha had only 62 women MPs, that itself an all-time high, at just 11.58% of the 543-member house. The electoral fray in 2014 had 670 women, barely 8% of the total 8,251 contestants, although it was 20% higher than the number in 2009. Poll pundits, however, revealed that there was a marginal increase — from three in 1984 to nine in 2014 — in the ratio of women candidates per 100 men.

Sadly, the number of women contestants in India in the 2019 elections has remained on an average below 10% of all contestants. Only two regional parties walked the talk in giving tickets to more women. Like in Indonesian politics, factors like winnability or the clout to garner financial support or lack of political experience often dissuade political parties from nominating women in India. Similarly, the tendency to prefer candidates, irrespective of gender, either from the world of glamour or from political dynasties is also part of the Indian political culture. A study in 2004 found that “nearly 20.07% of MPs in the Lok Sabha had dynastic background’, which rose to 30.07% in 2009, and then fell to 21.92% in 2014”.

India doesn’t have either a ‘voluntary’ or ‘compulsory’ candidate quota system for women. The women’s reservation bill for earmarking 33% seats to women in parliament and state assemblies has continued to face rough weather through the years though similar reservation of seats exists for women in grassroots democracy.

Against such a dismal background, will the 2019 election results, either in India or Indonesia, bring any shift in the political ground for women? Sadly, no.

(The writer is a retired Indian Information Service officer and a media educator)

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