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BRAZIL: Parties Fielding Too Few Women in Local Elections

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 11 2008 (IPS) - There are still too few women on the lists of candidates for Brazil’s municipal elections in October – another example of the distance between political parties and society which has led to the loss of credibility of political institutions.

Women candidates for the position of mayor in the Oct. 6 elections represent only 10.3 percent of the total, hardly larger than the 2004 figure of 9.5 percent. And for seats on town councils, the proportion of women candidates has fallen from 22.1 percent in 2004 to 21.9 percent this year.

The political parties are disregarding the quota of 30 percent of candidacies reserved for women candidates to Congress, since the law in force since 1997 imposes no punitive measures and contains loopholes for avoiding compliance, such as the ruse of presenting an excessive number of candidates, Patricia Rangel, a political scientist and consultant for the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA), told IPS.

Furthermore, the parties allocate fewer resources to women candidates, so that even lower numbers of women stand for political office.

At present, women are mayors of just 7.5 percent of the country’s 5,563 municipalities and governors of three of the country’s 27 states. Women occupy only 12.6 percent of the seats on town councils, 12.3 percent of the seats in the state legislatures, and 14.8 percent of the seats in Congress.

Parties today are an obstacle to women’s ascent up the political ladder, said Fátima Jordao, a sociologist specialising in opinion polls at the Patrícia Galvao Institute, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for women’s communication and rights.

Brazilian women “have made progress, in spite of the political parties,” in many dimensions of life, becoming stronger and more active in civil society, gaining a voice and greater prominence in a wide range of sectors, like NGOs, social movements and the media, but their access to the “centres of power” is still restricted, she told IPS.

Decision-making positions in the national government, companies, parties, trade union confederations or business associations are still monopolised by men, Jordao said. But women are “turning the mechanisms of power control to their advantage” and earning positions with “independent track records, climbing up the cracks in the parties, using every toehold,” she said.

According to her assessment, the advances women are making in the current campaign should not be measured by the number of women candidates but by the electorate they are wooing, especially in the large state capitals.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, for instance, the front runner is Marta Suplicy, a former tourism minister and former mayor of the city (2001-2004).

In Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceará, the polls indicate that mayor Luizianne Lins will be reelected. Like Suplicy, Lins belongs to the leftwing Workers’ Party (PT) led by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

There are also women candidates in Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Rio de Janeiro, although they have little chance of winning. In Sao Paulo, Fortaleza, Porto Alegre and other cities, there are two or more women candidates with high ratings in the polls.

“All the political parties discriminate against women, but they are shooting themselves in the foot,” because they are denying themselves women’s “great electoral and political potential and their capacity to contribute information and broaden representation,” Jordao said.

In an opinion poll published by the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo in January; 67 percent of interviewees said that a high rate of participation by women would improve politics in the country, while 58 percent said that women’s political presence today is “less than it should be.” A majority of respondents said they believed women are “more honest” than men.

The way to get more women into positions of power is to get them included in the plans of political parties, as is already happening in some cases, Jordao said.

A well-constructed electoral campaign for a woman presidential candidate is under way for the first time, aiming at the 2010 presidential elections. The president’s chief of staff Dilma Rousseff has the backing of Lula, whose support base is a broad alliance of social sectors, not political parties, which, in fact, oppose Rousseff’s candidacy, said Jordao.

Rangel, who is monitoring the 2008 municipal elections for CFEMEA – a Brasilia-based organisation that monitors parliamentary and political events of particular interest to women – blames women’s “under-representation” in politics on an electoral system that maintains gender inequity, and on cultural and social factors.

Because women alone are responsible for looking after children, if women are to participate in political activities their workday would consist of three shifts (job, home and children, and political meetings). They also have to rebel against the patriarchal culture in which they were raised, she said.

As women do not control their family’s assets nor political party resources, which are used systematically to benefit male politicians, only a political reform that stipulates exclusively public financing of electoral campaigns, and voting in a party system with appropriate lists of candidates, could bring about gender parity in the world of power politics, according to CFEMEA.

Candidate lists should be drawn up with a strict alternation of men and women in the order of candidates, since those at the top of the list will always be elected, while those lower down on the list may or may not be successful, depending on the proportion of votes won by the party, Rangel said.

Afro-Brazilian women should also be given preferential treatment because they are disadvantaged by double discrimination on the basis of race and gender. A considerable proportion of party campaign funds and television air time should be reserved for them, she argued

If there is parity in the party lists, with strict alternation of women and men in the order of candidates, Brazil could catch up with Rwanda, a tiny, poor Central African country that used an obligatory quota system to achieve world leadership in gender parity, with a parliament made up of 49 percent of women lawmakers, Rangel said.

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