Petra Oderbrecht has lived in Indonesia for 20 years and is hoping to win a seat in the central parliament representing the resort island of Bali for the nationalist Democratic Renewal Party.
The 42-year-old, blue-eyed blonde from Hamburg said the world’s third-largest democracy was a work in progress.
“When I tried to introduce my party and my candidacy to women workers in the factory I work for, the first thing they asked me for was money,” she told AFP in a Euro-Asian restaurant overlooking one of Bali’s famous beaches. “‘Ibu (Ms) Petra, if you want me to choose you, what are you going to give us?'” she quoted the women as saying. “It always goes back to the money. It makes me sad.”
The first white candidate to contest an Indonesian election said she decided to run because she wanted to contribute to her adopted country, a sweeping archipelago in Southeast Asia with 234 million people, mainly Muslims.
Democracy is still in its infancy in Indonesia, and the April 9 vote is only the country’s third general election since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 after more than 30 years in power.
“Indonesia is my country. I’m becoming aware that I cannot just sit back, watch and keep complaining all the time because it will change nothing,” Oderbrecht said.
Her priorities are equal rights for women and respect for cultural diversity in a country with significant Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu and animist minorities. Bali, for example, is a mainly Hindu island while Java is Muslim.
“Women make up more than half the population in Indonesia,” she said, bemoaning gender inequities in education and work. “Balinese women work harder than the men. They… get paid half what the man gets for doing exactly and physically the same.”
She said the recent passing of a bill designed to define and limit pornography was a threat to the country’s constitutionally protected pluralism.
“We have so many islands with more than 200 ethnicities. It’s so many, how can we implement the anti-pornography law, especially in Bali and Papua?” she asked, referring to local customs that could fall foul of the law.
Oderbrecht arrived in Indonesia in 1989 with her Indonesian husband. The couple divorced four years later but she decided to stay and now works as a yoga instructor and a quality controller at a French factory in Bali.
She became a citizen of Indonesia in 1992.
She said Indonesians needed better education to empower them to fully participate in their new democracy, instead of just voting for whoever pays them the most money.
“Democracy is a new thing here, it’s important to raise the awareness of the people so they speak out,” she said. “In the campaign, people give money, t-shirts, fried rice – it’s very easy to get them to vote for us but they don’t know actually what they’re voting for.”