Women in Politics: Beyond Numbers
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The World of Quotas

Quotas for women are intended to give women more power. However, to introduce quotas against severe resistance, as was the case in Scandinavia, requires that women already have gained some power.

There are a number of different quota methods for ensuring that women are represented in parliament. In the following section, we look at two of these methods in greater detail: quotas through constitution or national legislation and quotas through political parties with a special emphasis on the Nordic case. Often, the debate focuses entirely on the introduction of quotas. In this chapter, however, we also want to highlight the process of implementing quotas. The implementation process has too often been neglected, but is in fact crucial to the outcome. In the worst case scenario, quotas may be introduced after a heated debate but then have no effect on increasing women's representation because there are no mechanisms to ensure their implementation.

Quotas through Constitution
or National Legislation

Countries where quotas for women have been written into the constitution or introduced through national legislation include the following:

In Uganda, a parliamentary seat from each of the 39 districts is reserved for women, resulting in an increase in women's political representation. Some other women are elected to parliament on the non-gender specific reserved seats.

In Argentina, the electoral law establishes a compulsory 30 per cent quota for women candidates for elective posts. This rule has increased women's representation in the Argentinean Chamber of Deputies considerably.

In India, the 74th amendment requires that 33 percent of the seats in local municipal bodies are reserved for women. The policy of reservation, as well as of quotas, is a well-known, and much disputed, measure in Indian politics. 2

Other countries to mandate some form of parliamentary representation for women include Bangladesh (30 seats out of 330), Eritrea (10 seats out of 105), and Tanzania (15 seats out of 255). 3

What have been countries' experiences with such forms of quotas? Undoubtedly, it is easier to introduce quotas for women when other forms of quotas are also formally introduced, for example, quotas based on occupational or ethnic criteria. Regional quotas which distribute the seats to various parts of the country, not just according to their share of the population, but giving non-proportional seats to certain regions over others, are in fact used in most countries.

The implementation of a quota system is made easier in a new political system than in an older one, where most seats might be "occupied".

History seems to prove that the implementation of a quota system is made easier in a new political system than in an older one, where most seats might be "occupied", and consequently a conflict may arise between the interests of new groups versus those of the incumbents. In general, it is less complicated to implement quotas for an appointed post than for an elected one. At elections, the quota system touches the very foundation of the democratic process and may clash with the ideal that it is up to the voters to choose the representatives they want. However, as the previous chapter on electoral systems has indicated, nominations are the crucial stage ­ and the power of the nominations, though influenced by the voters, rests with the political parties. Since the political parties in most countries are the real gatekeepers to political office, quotas may lead to a dispute between the central and regional/local branches of the political parties. The local branches often fight for their right to choose their own candidates without the interference of the central party organization.

"Reserved seats" is the common concept for such systems. However, there is no clear-cut distinction between a system of reserved seats and quotas, since centrally reserved seats may also involve some kind of election, as in the case of Uganda and the former European communist parliaments.

Critics of reserved seats for women have argued that this system in fact prevents an increase in women's representation, namely above the quota level. Does the quota system indirectly prevent a further increase in women's representation and stop the further recruitment of women, once the quota requirement is met? Today, this does not seem to constitute a real problem, at least not yet. Certainly women-quotas that only prescribe one-third or even less of the seats may hinder a further increase in women's representation. Whether this has been or will be the case depends on how the quota system is constructed.

Historical experiences illustrate this point further. During communism, most countries in Eastern and Central Europe implemented a quota system for women. In the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), a number of seats were reserved for representatives of the official women's organization. However, the number of women in the GDR parliament increased during the 1970s and 1980s, not because more seats were given to the women's organization, but due to an increase in the number of women within the reserved seats for the trade unions and for youth organizations. So in this specific case, the "women seats" did not prevent an increase in women's representation through other channels.

Quotas for women in the form of a minimum 40 per cent and maximum 60 per cent may however, prevent women from reaching a representation above the 60 per cent and thus from dominating the assemblies in the same way as men have done historically, and still do in most parliaments in the world. Nevertheless, women's organizations have not demanded more than 50 per cent of the seats for women.

It is worthwhile noting that some governments, in some Arab countries for example, actually use the quota system for their own purposes. By getting more of their especially chosen women on board (the "queens" of the political arena, as the Speaker of the Swedish Parliament referred to them during an International IDEA conference), governments can achieve two objectives: get the token "controllable" women, while claiming they are in favour of promoting women's political participation. 4

Quotas through Political Parties:
The Nordic Case

The Scandinavian countries ­ Denmark, Norway and Sweden ­ are well-known for having a very high representation of women in politics. The Nordic countries have among the highest political representation of women in the world. This increase took place largely during the last 30 years. Today, women constitute 40 per cent of the members of parliament in Sweden, 34 per cent in Finland, 38 per cent in Norway, 34 per cent in Denmark and 25 per cent in Iceland.

No constitutional clause or law demands a high representation of women in Scandinavia. For the most part the increase can be attributed to sustained pressure on the part of women's groups within parties as well as the women's movement in general. Women mobilized and organized pressure to ensure that political parties increased their number of women candidates, that is to say, women candidates with a fair chance of winning.

This pressure was applied to all political parties in Scandinavia. Some parties responded by applying a quota system. In all three Scandinavian countries' quotas were introduced based on decisions made by the political parties themselves. Quotas were introduced in the social democratic parties and in parties to the left during the 1970s and 1980s. Most centre and right wing parties, however, considered quotas "un-liberal".

In 1983, the Norwegian Labour Party decided that "at all elections and nominations both sexes must be represented by at least 40 per cent".

In 1988, the Danish Social Democratic Party said, "each sex has the right to a representation of at least 40 per cent of the Social Democratic candidates for local and regional elections. If there is not a sufficient number of candidates from each sex, this right will not fully come into effect". This rule, which also applied to internal party bodies, was abolished in 1996.

In 1994, the Swedish Social Democratic Party introduced the principle of "every second on the list a woman". This means that if the first on the list of electoral candidates is a man, the next must be a woman, followed by a man, followed by a woman, or vice versa.

There are two important differences between the quota regulations for the Norwegian Labour Party versus the Danish Labour Party. First, in the Norwegian Labour Party quotas are in force during all elections; in the case of Denmark, they apply only to elections to the local councils and to the county councils, and not for elections to the national parliament. Second, there are no exceptions to the rule in the Norwegian clause; however, the last paragraph of the Danish rule allows for an exception if a sufficient number of candidates of either sex cannot be found. This exception may endanger reaching the goal of at least 40 per cent of each sex, as it may function as an excuse for the party leadership not to try very hard to recruit more women candidates. Political parties that have quotas for elections usually also have some kind of quota system when electing the party's internal bodies and leadership.

In some ways, quotas are a remedy to a disease, but in some cases they can lead to another disease. As we have seen in Central and Eastern European countries, quotas have led to a ceiling. They have lead countries to not develop a political culture whereby women are integrated into the political system.

--- Christine Pintat, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Switzerland

But rules are not enough. Whether a quota system reaches its objective depends largely on the process of implementation. If a policy of quota implementation is not decided upon, a quota requirement of, for example 30, 40 or 50 percent, is not likely to be met. The quota must be embedded in the selection and the nomination processes from the very start. If quota requirements are only discussed at the last stages, it is usually very difficult to reach the goal.


Rules are not enough. Whether a quota system reaches its objective depends largely on the process of implementation.
The introduction of quotas for women faced two main problems in Scandinavian countries. First, it was sometimes difficult to find the sufficient number of women who were willing to stand for election. Second, it was problematic if a party had to dismiss a male incumbent in order to include a woman. Consequently, vacant seats were women's best chances. But to ensure that a sufficient number of vacant seats were available for national parliament may involve a conflict between the central and the local party organization.

With regard to the first problem, while it is true that there have been recruitment problems, this has not been the case at all times and has not necessarily been true for all parties. The experience of the last few decades indicates that it has not been so difficult to recruit women who were already politicians to stand for top positions. What was harder was to recruit women for positions at the first entrance level. The advantage of the quota system is that it forces the nominating bodies, especially the political parties, to engage in an active recruitment process. In so doing it also focuses their attention on the actual working conditions and culture of politics, thus encouraging the possibility of making political participation more attractive for women. But a quota system can not remove the obstacles of combining job, family and political activity; a significant issue for women and a bigger problem for women than for men.

With regard to the second point, it is true that in most political systems the incumbent has a greater advantage than the newcomer does. The best chance of being nominated and getting elected belongs to those who already have a seat. Consequently, the smaller the rate of turnover, the more difficult it is to introduce quotas since the party will have to take away a seat from one of its own people to give it to a woman. In local elections in Denmark and Sweden for example, two-thirds of the incumbents are usually re-elected; most of them are men. Part of the resistance to quotas, undoubtedly, comes from incumbents' fear of losing their seats.

A number of strategies can be used to prevent such conflicts with incumbents. Some ideas tried in Scandinavian countries include the following:

  • When the Danish Social Democratic Party introduced a quota requiring women to occupy 40 per cent of the seats in internal bodies and committees, the size of the committees was enlarged, sometimes even doubled, to allow seats for women without having to get rid of men. In addition, two party vice chairmen were elected, one woman and one man. There was, however, only one chairman elected - a man.

  • The Norwegian Labour Party did not have difficulty recruiting qualified women candidates. The national party leadership and the party's women's secretariat underlined that the objective of the quota was to have more women elected, not just to have more women on the party's list of candidates. As we noted in the previous chapter, in the Norwegian legislative electoral system voters cannot change the priority given to the candidates by the party; in other words, it is the party who decides who is elected from their list. At first, controversies occurred since the top candidates were usually men who wanted to continue in their positions. Only gradually was it possible to fill the vacant seats with women. The Norwegian experience reveals that in such an electoral system it takes about three elections to implement a quota system. Today, women constitute about 50 per cent of the parliamentary faction of the party and 50 per cent of the ministers, when the party is in power.

  • Prior to the 1970 election, a local branch of the Swedish Social Democratic Party believed that women should fill the candidate lists, but it was the men who had the long years of experience which was also much needed. Consequently, the first ten names on the list remained men, with their experience, age, representation and knowledge. After the first 10 names, the party alternated with a woman; thus every second position was a woman. At the next election in 1973, the party alternated the names of men and women from number five on the list. Before the 1976 election, the local party decided that the whole list for the local council should include approximately every second a woman and a man. Later the party simply made up two lists, one with men and one with women, and combined the two lists before the election. The only problem that may arise is whose name is to go first on the list. 5

We have tried reserved parliamentary seats for village panchayats, and from my experience, this is a very effective measure. We have reserved 33 per cent of the seats in panchayats for women. Before this policy, we did not have women prepared for leadership positions; but as a result of the policy, political parties have to search for women. We got a mixed response. Some men did not want women to come forward, so they put forward their wives, sisters-in-law and mothers. But talented, educated women also came forward. Now the old argument that there are no able women to become candidates for legislative assemblies no longer holds. Because now the women serving as mayors and as chairmen of the municipal committees will be groomed as prospective candidates for parliament. More and more women have been elected to panchayats -- and this is a valuable pool of women for legislative assemblies. Thus the reservation of seats is a very effective measure, especially in countries such as India where there is such meager representation of women in parliament. In India, only 6.5 per cent of parliamentarians, 39 members of a house of 543, are women. A bill for reservation of seats for women in parliament is also pending; discussions are ongoing. It has not yet passed, but I think it will see the light of day.

--- Sushma Swaraj, MP India


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