Women’s Participation in Politics: A Brief Lesson from Various Countries

Philips J. Vermonte
CSIS Head of Politics and International Relations Department

2014 election has come to completion. Indonesia witnessed the fact that true democracy cannot be easily accomplished and it is an idea that needs to be continuously fought for. On the legislative side, the election have created dynamic political condition that may attract long-term effects due to the fact that PDI-P, a party that have won the most votes and seats, has not been able to claim the majority of seats. While on the executive side, its presidential candidate won the election.

In short, the dynamic political condition is a phenomenon where the executive and legislative powers are held by two different and competing groups (divided government). In the long run this split may have positive impacts due to “checks and balances”, but in the short-run it may attract negative consequences due to deadlocks and rigorous negotiations.

In the context of a tight political battle, issues of representations came to the spotlight, especially among minorities and politically feeble groups, including women within the executive and legislative area.

The following sections of this paper will examine the result of 2014 election that projected a mixed illustration regarding the level of women’s representation in branches of Indonesia’s executive and legislative powers. There are two important questions that this paper tries to answer. Firstly, it is in respect to the representation of women in politics following the 2014 election. Secondly, in the context of global understanding, what are the efforts in developing women’s representation in today’s political and governmental scene?

This paper will be divided into four major sections. The first part will briefly describe forms of women’s representations in Indonesia's political and governmental scene following the 2014 election. This is an important illustration that enables us to look through and to understand further the underlying factors that may cause an increase or decrease of women’s representation in politics and the parliament.

Secondly, the paper will describe the progress and level of women’s representation in a global context, and the underlying factors that may contribute towards it. Thirdly, the paper will examine the various views regarding women’s representation within the executive branch (the ministry). And lastly, a temporarary conclusion will be drawn regarding women’s representation and its relations with women’s political involvement in a democratic setting.


I. The Representation of Women and Politics following Indonesia’s 2014 Election: A Brief Explanation

The result of 2014 legislative election showed that the level of women representation in parliament is far from 30 percent. Even in comparison to 2009 election, the number of seats in Parliament won by female candidates decreased from 100 to 94 seats (see chart below).

Number of Women Representatives in the Parliament

Blue: Men

Red: Women

Interestingly, several Islamic parties demonstrate an opposite tendency. PPP experienced an increase in the number of seats won by female candidates, while PKS and PKB encountered a decrease. This raises new questions due to the general assumption that religion or parties with patriarchal values tend to perplex the chances for females to win seats. As a matter of fact, parties with Islamic foundations (PPP, PKB, and PAN) has more female members in the parliament in comparison to other parties (see the two following tables).

Percentage of Women Representative in the Parliament of the Republic of Indonesia


Number of Women Representative Seats in Parliament of the Republic of Indonesia


The percentage comparison of any increase and decrease in the number of parliament members from each parties participating in 2014 and 2009 elections can be summarized in the following table.


Based on the three charts above, it seems evident that there is no obvious pattern that justifies the previous assumptions regarding factors that affecting the number of women representatives in the parliament. Major parties demonstrate opposite tendencies in regard of the matter. The number of female representatives in Demokrat significantly decreases, while there is a slight increase among PDIP and Golkar, as well other smaller parties.

Moreover, based on the earlier mentioned "ideology", there is no notable pattern shown by Islamic based parties. Therefore, it seems apparent that explanations regarding factors affecting the number of women representatives in the Parliament require a revaluation.

As oppose to the Parliament, President Joko Widodo presents a different tendency towards the matter. The number of women ministers in his ministry increased by 100 percent. At the previous SBY’s ministry, there were four women ministers, while there are eight women ministers at the current ministry. In quantity, the increasing number of women ministers is a progress. In quality, any evaluation will have to wait until some time in the future.


II. Women Representation as a Global Issue

Throughout the world, there are more and more women occupying high posts in political systems. In this year's list of "The World's 100 Most Powerful Women", for example, Forbes Magazine listed eight women who occupy positions as head of state or minister. (1)

This section will try to elaborate matters relating to the following questions: What are the global trends of women and politics in various parts of the world? What concept will be suitable to explain changes in the number of women involvement in politics and parliaments in those countries?

Meanwhile, here are the most important questions in relation to the issue of women's involvement in politics:

At what point that a more active involvement of women will be better for democracy?

1) Is it related to the number of women in politics such as in the Parliament or the ministry so an adequate number of representatives to form a critical mass can be reached for the purpose of fighting towards women's interest?

2) Is it related to entitlements and its practices such as protection through the principles of citizenship?

3) Is it related to leverage of voices and discourses in relation to culture?

4) Is it related to structures and institutional policies such as electoral rules?

5) Or is it related to affirmative action and positive discrimination?(2)

This paper will not answer these questions individually, but it will involve some of these questions and their possible answers within the discussions, due to the interconnected nature of the topic.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU),  the number of women in the parliament is less than 20 percent in average each year. There are five countries that reach over 30 percent of women representatives in their parliaments, with the top two being both developing countries, Rwanda and South Africa (figures from some countries can be seen in the following picture(3)).

Economy of the European Union as a whole. See http://www.forbes.com/power-women/ (accessed on October 25, 2014).

It is important to remember that the objective of increasing women representatives in the parliament is to increase the quality of democracy. However, based on some data, the reality in many countries are far from expectations. For example, in countries located in southern Caucasus or formerly known as Soviet Union, which underwent a transition to democracy in the 1990s, the ones with smaller percentage of women representatives (such as Georgia and Ukraine) are in fact ones with higher rate of democracy, according to Freedom House Survey (Please see the table below).

However, it has been commonly agreed that it is important to achieve a certain number of women’s representatives in the parliament. Primarily, it is due to the fact that parliament is the place where political processes occurs. These processes will influence executive policies in relation to budget development, regulations, and legislations.

A study also found that the increasing number of women who became members of the parliament contributes positively towards the improvement of political participation in general. A study in Europe carried out by Wolbrecht and Campbell (2007)(4) for instance, discovered that the presence of more women in the parliament created a role model for women voters to pay more attention to political matters.

In other words, the presence of more women members in the parliament significantly increase the political efficacy for women voters but not for male voters (sees three charts cited from Wolbrecht and Campbell 2007 below).

Utilizing multiple datasets, Wolbrecht and Campbell found that the increasing number of women in the parliament positively correlates to the increasing frequency of political discourse among female voters as well as their involvement in political activities.

Figure 2A and 2B shows that a greater number of women MPs caused an increase in women's interest towards politics. This is evident through the increasing frequency of political discourses among women. This effect was seen among female voters and not among male voters. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that an increase in the number of female politicians in parliaments may be an effectively strategic way to increase women’s interest towards politics (according to research in European countries).

Meanwhile, Figure 3A of the study by Wollbrecht and Campbell (2007) above shows that men's political activities are still higher in comparison to women’s. However, along with the increasing number of women members in parliament, the difference is getting thinner.


Therefore, as found by Wolbrecht and Campbell in their studies, it can be concluded that an increase in quantity of female politicians in parliament encourages an increase in women's political participation in general. Women politicians serve as a role model for other women. As role models, women MPs become catalysts for political socialization and also for women’s wider political participation.

So the question is: what is the primary factor that can encourage an increase in number of politically active women in both the executive and legislative branches? There are at least two factors that are being considered as motivators toward the increase of the number of women in politics, particularly the parliament. Firstly, based on IPU’s data, most countries with high percentage of women MPs are industrially developed countries. There are few exceptions where some developing countries such as South Africa and Argentina have also being recorded as countries with high percentage of women MPs

However, the latest trend in developing countries shows sign of improvements, especially in Africa. For example, from 36 parliaments with over 30 percent of women representatives, 11 of them are African countries. In 2012, one-fifth (or 20 percent) of the total number of parliament members in the Sub-Sahara African countries are women. Though may seem little, but the number has increased by 7 percent from 2002. (5)

This means that levels of economic development is also an important factor that distinguish countries with either high or low number of women representatives in parliaments. (6)

Economic development may have an impact towards women’s participation in politics since it encourages an increase in education level and job opportunities, while diminishes the traditionally gender-biased patriarchal values against women.

Second, from the IPU data (at least until 2001), it can be concluded that the electoral system adopted by one country may also act as a factor that motivates the increasing percentage of women MPs. According to Richard E. Matland (2001), countries with high percentage of women parliamentarians generally use proportional representation system (PR system) or at least a mixed system. Meanwhile, there are not many countries that adopted a majority/plurality system that are recorded to have a high percentage of women Mps.(7)

Third, a sub-factor of an electoral system is the recruiting process of women candidates in every election. Two factors that are commonly regarded as important predictors to explain the increase of women representations is the application of quota system and an open political recruitment that enables equal chances for both men and women to be eligable candidates. The percentage increase of women in parlieaments of many African countries in 2012 as previously mentioned was due to the adoption of a quota system that requires a certain number of parliamentary seats to be occupied by women.(8)

A derivative variant of the quota system is surely related to the list making mechanism of the candidates. In Indonesia, for example, despite the fact that affirmative policies have legal basis, the issue of whether or not to use zipper system (9) in the preparation of the list of legislative candidates in the election becomes a significant factor towards the final election results. (10)

Fourthly, political parties as the backbone of democracy have responsibilities to improve the quality of democracy by increasing the chances of women to be involved in larger and more substantial political roles. Essentially, political parties must develop an open recruitment process that enables equal opportunities to guarantee all citizens’ (both men and women) rights to be elected.

In this regard, the political recruitment practice applied in Norway may be used as a lesson. Norway adopts a PR electoral system similar to Indonesia. In nominating candidates for the election, Norway sets a law that requires every political party to prepare the list of candidates openly, transparently, and starts from the bottom-up in each district/constituency. With this bottom-up process, everyone will be eligible to compete for a candidacy that will ultimately be settled in a final list by a committee from each party. The final candidates from each party will then compete against each other.(11)

In this democratic and bottom-up setting, women have the opportunity to mobilize support and assertively convey their aims and objectives. The image below shows the rapid increase of women representatives in Norway’s parliament from the past 50 years (1953 to 2001) as a positive consequence of the democratic process.(12)

Women Representatives in Norwegian Parliament


III. Women and Government

Globally, there are much less records and literatures about women in the ministry (executive) than women in parliaments. One of the reasons is due to the assumption that women are disadvantaged within the system of appointment in comparison to election process.(13) One of the apparent evidence is when the European Parliament changed the affiliation model from appointment to election. A significant increase occurs in the number of women who became members of the European parliament.(14)

What we see from the results of 2014 election is a deviation from these assumptions. Jokowi’s ministry composed of more female ministers than ever recorded in the history of the country. It is a 100 percent increase, from the previously four female ministers in SBY’s ministry to now eight female ministers. Interestingly, Jokowi's female ministers occupy crucial posts in the government, including the Foreign Minister post that constitutionally is a part of the triumvirate in the absence of the President and the Vice President. Also the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries who is key to fulfilling President Jokowi’s vision of building a maritime nation.

Obviously it is not possible to evaluate the performance of Jokowi-JK’s female ministers at the moment. However, the increase in number of female-state-executives alone is a clear sign of improvement. Different from women in parliaments, female ministers have unique opportunities to set policies that may have direct impacts toward women. In other words, they have great opportunities to build a less gender-discriminating government.

Women and government (in the context of governance and governing) is an important topic that has been a long-debated issue. The main reason is because the concept of governance is known to have separate realms between public and private, and governance and or governing is always about public. The main cause of gender inequality in societies is due to the perception that women are responsible only within a private realm, or domestic to be precise. Therefore, the increasing number of female-state-executives will open new horizons, tearing down domestication concepts and understandings where females need to place them selves only in private spaces. (15)

The increasing number of women in legislative and executive branches should unveil opportunities for the formation of gender responsive budgeting. This means that the increasing number of females in high political posts will create a supportive environment towards budget creations that are based on the needs and interests of women in general.

However, one study found that the formation of a gender-sensitive budget development is a result of various strengths that are mutually supportive, especially when there is an active mobilization of women in all sectors. (16) Therefore, the additional numbers of women in the parliament or the ministry should always be seen as a necessary condition, though insufficient.

  1. Temporary Conclusions

Ideally speaking, the practice of democratic politics, as can be learned from Norway, will guarantee the protection of citizenship principles, including the right to vote and to be voted, regardeless of gender or other traditional boundaries. As explained in the first part of this paper, the experience from the 2014 elections showed that the primordial factors such as religion (Islam), represented by Islamic parties, did not show any influence from the provisory supposition that claims religion (Islam) is often become the barrier to women involvement. 2014 election recorded that there are no clear patterns that can be drawn from the fact that several Islamic parties are experiencing an increase in the number of female parliament representatives, while some others encounter a decline.

Nevertheless, the increase in quantity of women representations in politics, particularly in Parliaments, remains important and relevant. As explained in this brief paper, an increase percentage of women in parliament act as an entry point for women to a more active and concrete engagement towards politics. It will create more discourses and strengthen their bargaining power.

In the end, this increase will form enough critical mass that is believed to be important in influencing the policy-making process. Although cultural factor is critical in influencing the presence of women in politics, this paper basically offers a more adequate option to explain the increase of women's political representation and participation in various countries.

Alternative explanatory option is an institutional setting, formed as rules, institutional engineering, and the fabrication as well as assurance of a more open and democratic political rules. A democratic political setting needs to be believed as a prerequisite towards the creation of quantitative and substantive representation and participation of women.

In summary, it is important to remember that an increase in quantity of women's representatives both in legislative and executive level has to be seen as a necessary condition, although it is insufficient towards the achievement a full political and social system that does not discriminate women. A discrimination-free society, towards women or other groups, is a result of balance between competing forces, both in state and non-state situations, including the ministry, parliament, civil society, and other groups.

Philips J. Vermonte is a CSIS Head of Politics and International Relations Department