I am surrounded by snoring Indonesian men at my 05.00 hours flight from Jakarta to Surabayo writing this blog. Outside the sun is rising over this vast archipelago. I am on my way to a workshop of the Komunitas Indonesia untuk Demokrasi (KID) and a visit to the NIMD sponsored Democracy School (Sekolah Demokrasi) in Malang at East Java.

2009 is another election year in Indonesia, the third since the reformasi ended 30 years of dictatorship under Suharto. The first election in 1999 focused very much on the role of religion in public life, the second election in 2004 focused on deepening the reform agenda and the 2009 elections will be about the economy. These few key words nicely summarize the substantial evolution of democracy in Indonesia over the past 10 years. In established democracies, bread and butter issues are usually core concerns in elections.

The parliamentary elections will be held on April 9th, 2009, for 560 seats in 77 electoral districts for which 12.000 candidates are fielded. These elections, contested by 38 political parties, are followed by the first round presidential election on July 8th, followed by the second round on September 8th, 2009. The new president shall be inaugurated on October 20th, 2009. In the new democratic Indonesia, the elections have so far been generally ‘free and fair’ and peaceful transfers of power have taken place 3 times now. Elections in Indonesia are colorful events with lots of flags, parades and singing candidates. There is also a lot of money involved (for which stricter disclosure regulations have been introduced for these elections).

If no dramatic changes take place between now and the presidential elections, it is widely believed that the incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has a more than good chance to be re-elected for a second 5-year term. His main contender is expected to be former president Megawati Sukarnoputri of the PDI-P. Opinion polls indicate that the elections promise to result in some major shifts in the political landscape. The party of the president, the Democratic Party, has a good chance to become a major political force and the two dominant parties, Golkar and PDI-P could loose their majorities in parliament. New possibilities for new alliances could emerge.

Some important changes have, meanwhile been introduced in the electoral law and regulation that shall apply for these elections. The first is the introduction of a 2,5% threshold of the national vote for political parties to meet to enter parliament. This threshold is expected to reduce the number of parties in parliament to between 7 to 10 and reduce the political party fragmentation. Its aim is to strengthen parliament whereas opponents of the threshold argue that its is an infringement on democracy since it limits the representation of small parties in parliament.

The second significant change is a recent decision by the Constitutional Court ruling that the candidates on the lists of the political parties are elected on the highest number of votes received rather than their ranking on the list, Voters have only one ballot to cast, and can cross either the party or one name of a candidate on the list of the party. The implication of this ruling – which is contested because it was not a reform introduced by parliamentary process but a ruling by the court – is far-reaching. It will negatively affect party cohesion because candidates on party lists are now becoming each others competitors. With 38 political parties on the ballot and on average 3 to at most 10 parliamentary seats in each of the 77 electoral districts, competition for a parliamentary seat is very tough.

While the Constitutional Court ruling enhances direct influence of the electorate over political parties in selecting the members for parliament, the victim of this reform in the current electoral system will be the women candidates. Political parties had previously decided to introduce affirmative action to increase the number of women in parliament. They accepted a minimum of 30% women on their party lists ensuring that in the order of candidates every 3 candidates included two different genders (the ‘zipper approach’). Now the number of votes of each candidate is made the determining factor for election in parliament rather than the order on the list, there is no assurance that the number of female candidates in the Indonesian parliament shall increase. In all districts the competition for only a few parliamentary seats by 38 parties tends to favor male candidates with access to substantial financial resources. Today, only 11,3% of the members in the current parliament are female, a dismal number for the third largest democracy in the world. It is a missed opportunity now the forthcoming elections are not expected to improve this severe imbalance.

Last December, President Yudhoyono convened the Bali Forum for Democracy that brought together countries in Asia and democracies from other continents with the specific objective of sharing best practice experience in democratic development on the Asian continent. An important initiative. The participation of women in Indonesian parliament does not qualify as a best practice. One would hope that the political parties will return to the issue of women participation after the elections and fix the electoral system as to allow improvement of the gender balance before the next round of elections in 2014.