One-third representation of women in legislatures has its limitations

  • Sumantra Bose
  • Updated: Oct 23, 2014 00:35 IST

The Women’s Reservation Bill remains stalled, its prospects uncertain. And female representation in our legislatures — the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas — remains one of the lowest across democracies globally.

Reserving one-third of constituencies for women and rotating these constituencies in successive elections is unknown in the world. Democracies have usually taken a different route to gender equity in their legislatures.

A trailblazer was Argentina. Argentine women got the right to vote in 1947. They voted and contested for the first time in parliamentary elections in 1951, and one-fifth of the legislators elected were women. This was because the dominant Peronist party adopted a policy of nominating large numbers of women candidates. Had the
Congress taken a similar approach after Independence, women need not have been 4% of the first two Lok Sabhas and 6% of the next two.

Then in 1991 a neo-Peronist president, Carlos Menem, signed an electoral law on women’s representation in the national parliament making it compulsory for political parties to nominate at least 30% women on their candidate lists. In 1991, women were 6% of the chamber of deputies, the lower house. In 1995 they were 25%, 30% in 2001 and 36% in 2005. In the smaller upper house (senate), the law applied from 2001 and women senators increased from 3% in 1995 to 33% in 2001. Eleven other countries in Latin America have enacted similar laws. The Argentine parliament elected in 2013, women are 37% of deputies and 39% of senators.

Germany has no such law. But in the 21st century the proportion of women elected to the German federal parliament, the Bundestag, has been at or above one-third. In the 2002 election, 195 of the 603 members were women (32%); in the 2005 mid-term election 194 of 614 (32%). In the Bundestag elected in 2013, women are 37% of 631 parliamentarians.

This is because the two largest parties, the left-of-centre Social Democrats (SPD) and right-of-centre Christian Democrats (CDU) have targets of nominating 40% and one-third women, respectively, among their candidates. The Green party has a 50% target. This has a demonstration effect on parties which do not have such formal policies.

After the 2002 election six of the 13 federal ministries had women in charge. After 2005 five of the 15 cabinet ministers were women and Angela Merkel became the first woman Chancellor. In Argentina — which like Germany has a deeply patriarchal social ethos — Cristina Kirchner is in her second term as President.

In Britain, women members of the House of Commons doubled from 60 (9%) elected in 1992 to 120 (18%) in 1997. In the mid-1990s the Labour Party sharply increased its proportion of women candidates. This was partly due to internal criticism that Labour was too male-dominated but it was mainly a strategic move — Labour would have won the close 1992 election had women voted for the party in the same proportion as men did. In the landslide Labour victory of 1997, 101 of the 120 female parliamentarians were from Labour, dubbed ‘Blair’s babes’ by the tabloid press. In the 2001 election 118 women MPs were elected, 95 as Labour candidates. The current House of Commons elected in 2010 has 143 women MPs (22%).The majority are from Labour (81) but a sizeable number are Conservatives (49). Britain’s traditional right-wing party has been compelled to follow its rival’s strategy.

This route to one-third and higher has limitations. In a constituency-based system there is a risk of women being nominated from less winnable or unwinnable seats, or even in frivolous contests where a party has little or no base. And there is potential for nepotism, with family members and other ‘connected’ women getting tickets. That’s also true of the seat-reservation formula, however.

Yet this route has worked in many countries. An alternative worth thinking about?

Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy.
The views expressed by the author are personal.

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