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Lena Maryana and Dita Indah Sari hit the campaign trail

Jakarta Globe - April 4, 2009

'PBR is open to new ideas, in contrast to the more established parties' - Dita Indah Sari, PBR

In a narrow alley in Kali Besar, Central Jakarta, legislative candidate Lena Maryana hands out brochures detailing her vision and mission, as well as the reasons she is running for a seat in the House of Representatives in the April 9 elections.

"Please vote for a candidate who shows genuine concern for people's welfare and represents public interests," the 34-year old mother told dozens of Kali Pasir residents, mostly women wearing green headscarves, during a campaign stop last Thursday evening.

"Please don't accept bribes, including handouts from candidates, because we don't know where the goods come from," said Lena, who is running under the Muslim-based United Development Party, or PPP, in the Jakarta II electoral district, which covers Central Jakarta, South Jakarta and overseas voters.

Hundreds of kilometers east of Jakarta, noted labor activist Dita Indah Sari battled extreme weather and bumpy roads to do the rounds of villages near Solo city in Central Java Province.

Dita, a candidate for the Islamic Reform Star Party, or PBR, in the Boyolali electoral district, was sweating and her makeup had disappeared, but the villagers looked impressed by her visit. "Hardly any candidates for the House of Representatives ever visit us. They only put their banners up or send representatives," said a villager.

Lena and Dita are just two of the hundreds of women vying for seats in the House of Representatives, or DPR, in next week's elections, thanks to the election law that requires political parties to allocate at least one-third of their legislative candidate places to women.

The Constitutional Court's recent ruling that winners of the legislative elections will be determined by the number of valid votes each candidate receives – a first-past-the-post system – now means that female candidates, who are mostly less experienced and poorly funded, will have to push themselves much harder to have a chance at winning.

For example, Lena, who is currently a member of House Commission II, started off Thursday's campaign with a 10 a.m. stop in Pejompongan, Central Jakarta, followed by an afternoon stint in Petukangan, South Jakarta, before she visited Kali Pasir at around 7:30 p.m.

"I get a lot of mental satisfaction when [the residents] come to understand a bit more about politics and the upcoming elections," Lena said.

"I'm very happy to share my knowledge with them. I know voter education is very important, especially for working-class people, as their access to the correct information is limited," Lena told the Jakarta Globe.

She said she wanted to convince people, especially people on low incomes, that casting their votes was important in building democracy in the country.

"I always tell them that casting their ballots is their right as a citizen, not a compulsory chore," she said. "I also tell them they should carefully choose the candidates because the nation needs the best and most-trusted candidates to build good governance."

Being a member of a Muslim party that promotes Islamic law, or Shariah, does not prevent Lena from promoting pluralism. "The people here always react positively to pluralism as they live with it on a daily basis," she said, adding that Islam also teaches syncretism.

She said she did not have billions of rupiah to spend on her election campaign like some other candidates, but she felt she had more effective ways to manage a good campaign.

"I build good networks within the community and I make sure I personally reply to any questions from voters," she said, adding that she has a Facebook account and a blog to help her spread the word.

Lena said she was never going to sell her car or house to finance her candidacy, and that her campaign had not cost more than Rp 300 million ($26,100).

"I find leaflets very effective in promoting myself – we printed 60,000 leaflets at a cost of Rp 300 each," she said. "I also didn't use huge banners and prohibited my supporters from sticking my picture on trees."

Lena said she had deployed some 150 volunteers to go door to door to promote her ideas, adding that those volunteers refused payment as most were members of the Muslim Students Association, an association in which she was active during her college days.

"I don't go to people's homes to push them into accepting my campaign ideas, but I'm very happy to go door to door to give them information about politics and the elections," she said.

Lena also said she was concerned about the participation of women in government. "The involvement of women in the political world is necessary to improve conditions for women," she said.

If Lena relies on her reputation as a House member, Dita, one of some 200 activists running for legislative seats, is counting on her credentials as a labor activist.

Dita, who has been involved in labor rights movements since 1992, said many activists have put their hand up as candidates because, if elected, they would gain access to policy making, a lack of which has made their hard work as activists often frustratingly ineffective.

Her choice of the Reform Star Party – an Islamic party marred by internal rifts – as a political vehicle raised many eyebrows because it was seen as a major departure from the leftist Democratic People's Party, or PRD, and the United National Liberation Party, Papernas, which she co-founded.

Dita indicated that joining PBR meant picking the lesser of two evils. "PBR is still an Islamic party, but it's leaning more toward a neutral position at the moment and is changing its focus from religious figures to young people," she said. "The party is also open to new ideas, in contrast to the more established parties."

"The big, so-called nationalist parties are appalling. They're a majority in legislative bodies, but they support conservative regulations that threaten pluralism, like the antipornography law and Shariah bylaws."

Dita has to compete with more than 100 candidates to win one of eight House seats in her electoral district. Her opposition includes heavyweights such as former President Megawati Sukarnoputri's daughter Puan Maharani, from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle; the current People's Consultative Assembly speaker and Prosperous Justice Party co-founder, Hidayat Nur Wahid; and Suhardi, chairman of the well-funded Gerindra Party.

When it comes to campaign funds, Dita said she could not compete with the more wealthy candidates, especially as voters have become used to receiving money from candidates, a practice Dita could not – and would not – take part in.

Dita said she has so far spent around Rp 170 million, which she collected from friends and family, and she did not expect to spend more than Rp 300 million. A candidate from a big party would spend Rp 1 billion for advertising alone, Dita said, adding that despite her low-cost campaign, she still has high hopes for her candidacy.

She does, however, have some advantages. Being a longtime activist has given her access to the networks of large nongovernmental organizations as well as to labor unions.

Dita has also received support from unexpected sources. Local branches of several political parties – which have their own candidates for local legislative bodies but not for the House of Representatives – have agreed to support and campaign for her.

One legislative candidate from a local party branch who asked not to be identified said, "Friendship and family relations are still highly valued and we often don't feel close to our party candidates because they never come here, they never approach us."

"So we prefer to support a candidate that we're familiar with," the candidate said.

Dita said that loyalty to political party is not as strong now due to the new system where candidates with the highest number of votes win. Local candidates are spending a lot of their own money to run so they feel less obligated to campaign for their fellow-party House candidates.

The problem, however, with this informal interparty support is that with 34 parties and hundreds of candidates in Dita's district alone, voters are prone to become confused. With Dita getting additional support from other parties, she has to remind people to vote for different parties on each of the three ballots – the provincial or city council, House of Representatives and Regional Representatives Council.

"I'm afraid it could create confusion," she said.

It was already dark but Dita still had to visit a local party office to meet party members, and later in the evening she would meet with local ulema. She still has high hopes and time will soon tell whether her campaign has been effective or not.