Women and minority candidates face challenges in Indonesia polls

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Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 11: With a broad smile on his face, Jakarta city council candidate Rian Ernest answers almost every question about his faith with the same line.

"I'm Christian, but my wife and children are Muslims, so pray for me to get the guidance," Ernest said.

Ernest is one of thousands of candidates facing the contradictions of seeking office as a member of a minority in the world's third-largest democracy, which is holding national elections on Wednesday.

Elections in the country often reveal a tension between pluralism and the power of conservatives from its Muslim majority.

Nearly 90% of Indonesia's 277 million people are Muslims. There are just under a million Christians in Jakarta, out of around 10 million people.

Christians like Ernest hold around 14% of seats in the national legislature, while making up just under 9% of the general population, but they face constant questions about their faith. A national quota system has helped more women win office, but fallen short of its own targets. And in this election, a new party is seeking to win representation for marginalized groups like domestic workers and people with disabilities.

Ernest, a lawyer turned politician, is running for a seat in the city legislature in East Jakarta for Golkar, Indonesia's second largest party. The capital is one of the best places to run as a Christian, he says.

Jakarta elected an ethnic Chinese Christian governor in 2014, but he lost re-election after conservative Muslims accused him of blasphemy, and wound up jailed for it.

After Basuki Tjahaja Purnama accused rivals of misinterpreting the Quran to oppose a Christian governor, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protests. Now Anies Baswedan, who rode the protests to victory over Purnama in the 2017 governor's race, is a leading candidate for president.

"It's the kind of mindset that might make some non-Muslim candidates think twice about campaigning in a conservative Muslim community," Ernest said. He added that most Indonesians are tolerant unless something triggers a conflict, and the country has a pluralist society that respects freedom of expression.

This year, Ernest is trying to win over voters by offering rice for around half the usual price, with a picture of Ernest, his candidate number and a campaign message in each one. He says it's a better alternative to vote buying, which is widespread in Indonesian elections.

Supriatna, a 22-year-old food vendor and first-time voter, said he appreciated the campaign stop in a neighbourhood almost never visited by politicians. He said Ernest's faith does not concern him.

"The most important thing is that legislative candidates want to go directly to the grassroots, asking directly what the people need," said Supriatna, a first-time voter who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.

Female candidates face perhaps a steeper uphill battle, despite a quota system requiring 30% of candidates to be women since 2004.

Since 2004, the number of seats held by women in the national parliament has climbed from around 8% to just over 21%, according to World Bank figures. Women are even rarer in provincial and district legislatures, only 18% and 15% respectively, according to the General Election Commission. In 25 of Indonesia's 167 district parliaments, no women at all were elected in 2019.

"I want to be there to voice the needs and issues of women that must be accommodated by law," said Muharyati, another candidate in East Jakarta, who goes by only one name.

A 54-year-old single parent of two whose left hand is partially missing, Muharyati chairs the Indonesian Association of Disabled Women and says she had to endure ridicule because of doubts about her competence to sit in Jakarta's House of Representatives.

She is running with the newly formed Labour Party, which is putting forward candidates from marginalized groups in its races across the country.

Muharyati said many policies, laws and regulations tend not to side with women, especially women with disabilities.

"I will fight for equal rights for women and people with disabilities if I am elected to office," Muharyati said.

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