By Amirah Kaca Sumarto
In 2017, I was crunching data to analyse gender bias in the Indonesian legislative election. In 2018, I experienced the issue in real life as a female political candidate running for the Indonesia legislative election. Just like normal graduate students, I spent day and night transforming and cleansing unstructured and badly formatted data and writing commands in statistical software. I pored over literature on Indonesian politics, electoral systems, and gender.
The dissertation that I wrote for my Master’s at the London School of Economic and Political Science was titled “In the list but not in office: gender bias in the Indonesian legislative election”. My research question had found that voters and political parties are both biased and it has put women candidates in a more unfavourable situation compared to similar male candidates. I also argued that this issue presents a problem to our democracy as women’s representation is a moral, social, and political imperative. Since then, women and politics is an issue I have always been passionate about.
Through the dissertation, I gained insight that was mostly quantitative, and afterwards so many questions linger regarding all the qualitative aspects of the issue. I didn’t expect that just a year after that, opportunities and some risk-taking from my part would have brought me to all the qualitative knowledge through first lived experience. I didn’t expect that election would also bring me a PhD-worth of learning about the reality of life.
The Leap of Faith: Entering Politics
Politics is not a completely strange world for me. My parents are in politics and I have been active in campus politics world and student government. Seeing my activism as a student, my parents (who were also prominent student activists back in their days) had always been encouraging me to enter politics early on. However, I ended up taking a professional route early in my career. As soon as I graduated, I took a corporate job in an Enterprise IT company, IBM. After a while, especially with experiences with some public sector clients, I realised that I was less interested working with the technology and more interested in doing public problem-solving.
I decided to pivot into public sector reform works and started the journey by taking a Master of Public Administration in Economic Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I had written the dissertation I mentioned earlier. After graduating, I worked with the World Bank office in Jakarta on various public management and governance related projects, such as civil service reform, public financial information management system, and e-government. In doing those projects, I realised that one important element of public sector reform is political willingness. Structural changes come from a place to authority and politics plays a crucial part. You can always utilise your expertise and competency to try to influence public decisions from the outside, but being inside the system brings you closer to the decision makers and greatly increases your influence.
Around mid-2018, political parties were finalising the candidate list for the 2019 election. The election law requires all political parties to list a minimum of 30 percent candidates as women, otherwise they can’t participate in the election. This is a form of affirmative action for female candidates I have heavily researched on. Apparently, political parties found difficulties in filling the quota spots for women in the candidate list. There is a real shortage of female political talents, and many parties open candidate recruitments for women. As my mother has been in Partai Golkar, I was scouted by Kesatuan Perempuan Partai Golkar (KPPG), the party’s women wing, to become one of the candidates.
If I had been honest with myself, I knew that deep inside politics is a route that I want to eventually take. But at that time, I kept thinking that I was too young and I wasn’t ready. Moreover, running for election is a highly costly and risky move. After further contemplation and seeing many young politicians’ success stories in other countries, I convinced myself that the path of politics, just like parenting and entrepreneurship, is something that one can never be fully ready for. The only way to be good at it is to swim in the water. Moreover, isn’t the best way to increase women’s representation is to increase women candidates. And isn’t the best way to fight to run as a female candidate myself? Thus, I decided to take a leap of faith and handed in my application to be a legislative candidate to Partai Golkar.
Start of a Humbling Experience
I was assigned as Partai Golkar’s only female candidate for national parliament in Kalimantan Utara electoral district. Kalimantan Utara, Indonesia’s youngest province, was also a newly-formed electoral district of three seats in DPR-RI. This presents a big opportunity as well as high uncertainty, which made me decide to move to live in the electoral district to campaign full time. It is very common for political parties to assign and send over talents that have been developed at national level (many residing in Jakarta) to run in electoral districts all over Indonesia. Not all candidates campaign full time as many still have to divide time with their main job.
With my decision to move to Tarakan, Kalimantan Utara, I had brought three people from Java to come with me. All had zero experience in politics: one was a former banker, one was a former ethnography researcher, and one was a teacher with a stint of work in a FMCG company. We rented a house that functions as our home, campaign office, workshop and warehouse for campaign materials. Then we started tapping into our local network to start building the local campaign team.
The biggest challenge in creating campaign operations in Kalimantan Utara’s is in its geography. The number of voters is only roughly around one Kecamatan in DKI Jakarta, but they are spread in an area as big as half of Java island. Reaching out to voters means visiting villages that are scattered in remote areas with limited access of transportation. The regional level of development is very low. Thus, the living conditions and quality of public facilities in average are a lot lower than in Java. Early in my career, business travel means international flight and staying at Intercontinental, and now it means riding on a little ketinting wooden canoe through the river rapids and sleeping on a wooden house of a villager’s house with no toilet. Although experiencing all of these are novel experiences for me, they are the daily experiences of so many people.
Before entering politics, I too had my share of disdain for the world. When you’re not in politics, it is easier as an outsider to complain about the reality. I too felt a higher sense of morality for being able to distance myself from such a “corrupt” world. Then I realised that I had always seen and analyse many of the social and political ills from an intellectual ivory tower perspective. And as I jumped out from it, I built a more nuanced understanding of the issues. Political science theories can be useful, but they are not realities. The knowledge, skills, competency, and professional experience that I had been proud of, were not necessarily sufficient in helping me winning votes for the election
I remember my first time talking in front of a group of constituents, thinking that I was being a smarty pants with my data and knowledge of the issue. My previous career has required me to be able to communicate, network, and deliver presentations all the time – making me confident in my communication skill. But now, instead of presenting to corporate clients and government officials, I must deal with farmers, fishermen, and villagers. That first time, my team pulled me aside and told me “ You need to improve your communication, people don’t understand a thing you said.” I was obviously shocked with the feedback, but that made me realised I had been living in a bubble, only being able to communicate with people who are similar in terms of background, education, and occupational class.
The start of my campaign was a humbling one and it became a defining moment of introspection. Afterwards, it was months of extreme highs and lows, combining many sweet and heartwarming experiences with a series of major burn-outs. It was a constant test to my physique, willpower, and empathy. Especially, because running as a young woman poses extra challenges. I hope through these series of writing I could paint a realistic picture of what a political journey entails.
Notes from ceritaperempuan.id, this writing is part of a Series that Kaca is working on with us to reflect on her experience running for election (and losing in that matter), last year. We have been very fortunate to host these stories and we will have an Indonesian version of the writing soon in compliance with our dedication to always publish as much as possible in Bahasa Indonesia. Stay tune for more of Kaca’s stories in politics–lets learn from her perspective the issues that women face to be in public office. So that one day, we will overcome.
Next in the Series:
Facing the Frustrating Realities of Practical Politics
Overcoming the Bitterness of Loss
Continuing the Journey