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Get Real on Promoting Women in Political Parties!

There are many ways to help increase women’s participation in politics and get more women in legislatures.  You can design election systems that are more women-friendly, impose quotas, institute women’s only lists. But in reality, the only way we are ever going to achieve parity in the world’s parliaments is when parties take seriously their own rhetoric on improving women’s political participation and promote women as candidates and decisions makers within parties.Only recently, in a modern, yet still conservative North African country, I had a male leader tell me that the party cannot hope to achieve parity among candidates because: “we can’t find women to run, particularly in rural areas”.  Although I have heard this many times over the years, it is still shocking to me that in 2014 an otherwise intelligent political operative will say this out loud.So, what’s the problem? First of all, they just aren’t looking.  Second, and more important, many party leaders are not willing to make the decisions and choices necessary to promote women.

If you claim to be in favour of democracy and women’s equality, you need to “walk the talk”.  Many party leaders – particularly in Europe and North America (well, Canada at least) have made great strides in leading the way to promote parity in politics.  In 2008, Jose Zapatero made history when he unveiled a new cabinet with more women than men.  This precedent was slightly overshadowed by the hoopla that one of these ministers was heavily pregnant.   Hopefully, one day, images like this one from El Mundo in 2008 won’t be such a novelty.

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photo credit: Antonio Heredia
Zapatero was continuing the commitments of his party, Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), started in 1997 when party women fought for – and won — a quota of 40% on party bodies.  As Celia Valiente has noted in Women and Legislative Representation: Electoral Systems, Political Parties, and Sex Quotas, the quota was introduced as a solution to calls for party renewal and was successful because it was implemented — not often the case with many parties that have quotas.Many parties around the world now have quotas for candidates or elections lists – some even enforce those quotas.  Unfortunately, many party leaders see these quotas as the ceiling, not the floor they are intended to be.

In systems where a few party leaders decide who gets to be candidates — usually men in the headquarters of a party in the nation’s capital —  women are disadvantaged.  In fact, for local or regional races many activists, male and female, are disadvantaged because only the regional bosses will succeed in gaining the attention of party’s most senior leaders. A smart party leader will depend on the advice and guidance of local and regional party leadership and sign off on their recommendations for candidates, but those local and regional leaders continue to be, for the most part, men.

Too many leaders are unwilling to go beyond their legal requirement to promote women’s participation and too few are prepared to change internal party rules and increase the real representation of women in meaningful party positions.

After all my years of working with political parties in new and emerging democracies, I am convinced that involving party members in more decisions — particularly the decision on who should be candidates to represent their party in legislatures — will help increase women’s candidacies. Look, I know it is hard for party leaders to give up control.  I know allowing local party members to choose their candidates is a slippery slope of expectations. But not only are party primaries important to internal party democracy, but many party women activists I have met around the world would welcome the opportunity to compete fairly in competitions for candidacies and demonstrate their eligibility to run for office.

There are other things parties can do.  In the last few years I have been encouraging parties to make the candidacy of women a priority where male incumbents are resigning or vacating their seats. Sure, a party wants to keep the seats it has, so keep the incumbents, but where a seat is opening up give the nomination to a woman.

Candidates and elected representatives are the most visible and public expression of a party’s commitment to gender parity. But their sincerest commitment is in the internal structure – do they insist that women are equally represented at all levels of the party – particularly on those bodies where decisions are made?  A few years ago, I was speaking with a tribal chief in the Middle East who had recently formed a political party.  In describing the various bodies and committees in the party, he was proud to note that there was a women’s “wing” or committee.  When I asked him which party body made the decisions and how many women were on that body, he had to admit that no women were involved in any decisions in his party. Not something to be terribly proud of.

It is still possible that not enough women seek out nominations or think they can succeed in becoming a candidate.  The International Republican Institute’s recent campaign “Ask A Woman To Run” is one creative way of addressing this phenomenon, since, in some cultures, women are told they aren’t electable and, therefore, they don’t even think of running.  But who’s fault is that?

So, don’t tell me you can’t find any women to run. Get out of your office and start looking for them!

Writing by Francesca Binda, President of Binda Consulting International Ltd.

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