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Brazil’s Gender Quota Law Off to Underwhelming Start

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 12 2012 (IPS) - Brazil’s new law requiring that 30 percent of candidates must be women made a less than impressive debut in Sunday’s municipal elections, although female candidates for mayor made better headway than women running for town councils.

“The biggest advance was the fact that for the time in the history of the country, women represented more than 30 percent of the candidates for elected posts,” Patricia Rangel, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Catholic University of Goiás, told IPS.

Brazilians went to the polls on Sunday Oct. 7 to elect mayors and town councillors in 5,568 municipalities. A runoff will be held on Oct. 28 in 50 cities – including the 26 state capitals – where the leading candidates for mayor failed to earn enough votes for an outright victory.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, has helped paved the way for women’s growing participation in politics. Credit: redebrasilatual CC BY-SA 2.0

Despite expectations that it would make a poor showing, the left-wing Workers Party of President Dilma Rousseff won 14 percent more mayor’s offices than in the 2008 elections – a total of 628, which put it in third place, after its ally in the national government, the Democratic Movement Party, which took 1,025, and the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy party, which garnered 693.

The gender quota law in effect since 2009 but first applied in Sunday’s local elections requires a minimum of 30 percent and a maximum of 70 percent of candidates of each sex on party lists.

The new law addresses the gaps and ineffectiveness of the quota rule approved in 1997, which merely stated that the political parties had to reserve up to 30 percent of spots on the lists of candidates for women, but without providing for fines or any other sanctions in case of non-compliance.

The high level of participation of female candidates guaranteed the triumph of an unprecedented number of women mayors. The 663 who were elected, of a total of 2,025 women candidates, represent 11.8 percent of the mayor’s posts up for grabs.

A study by demographer José Eustaquio Diniz of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics compares the number of female mayors elected this week with the 317 who triumphed in 2000, representing just 5.5 percent of the total, the 404 elected in 2004, and the 504 elected in 2008.

“We can conclude that this year, when we are celebrating the 80th anniversary of women earning the right to vote in Brazil, women have made a stride forward in participation in municipal politics,” Diniz told IPS.

For her part, Clara Araújo, coordinator of the University of Rio de Janeiro unit of studies on inequality and gender relations, attributed the growth in the number of female mayors-elect to the characteristic of the post of mayor, which requires direct contact with citizens and involves immediate, day-to-day issues.

In addition, the position allows women to stay closer to home, without having to move to another city, in contrast with women who are elected to parliaments, whether national or municipal, she added.

One noteworthy aspect was that a majority of the women elected as mayors are in cities or towns with fewer than 200,000 voters.

Araújo attributed this to the fact that in smaller districts, candidates need fewer funds, and the campaign is carried out near the candidates’ homes, two elements that “favour the participation of women.”

But contrasting with the success in the elections for mayor, women’s performance in the race for municipal councils was less promising.

Diniz said that although the 7,648 female town councillors elected Sunday, equivalent to 13.3 percent of all of the posts of councillors in dispute, also represented a record, the proportion was seen as falling short of expectations, given the requirement that 30 percent of the candidates were women.

In 2000, 7,001 female town councillors were elected. The number then went down to 6,555 in 2004 and remained steady at 6,512 in 2008, representing 12.5 percent of the total.

Rangel said the greatest setback was the fact that the increase in the number of female candidates did not translate into more women town councillors, because the proportion only grew from 12.5 to 13 percent.

However, Araújo said she was not surprised by the outcome. She said that quantitative and qualitative studies on the issue “have found that the increase in quotas does not have to do with the rise in the number of women elected.”

That, according to Rangel, is primarily explained by “the individualistic electoral behaviour caused by the system of open lists, which fuels competition between candidates even within the same party or coalition, and prompts them to go out and seek their own funding.”

Against that backdrop, women tend to have fewer funds and scarce support from their “party networks”, said Araújo, who added that women candidates are at a disadvantage within the party structure, where conditions are unequal.

She  said she agreed with the gender quotas, “as a supportive element in a broader process.”

In that context, she cited three factors that need to be improved: support for public campaign financing; more democratic distribution of electoral TV broadcasting time; and strengthening and training for the participation of women within parties.

But Rangel said that in order to achieve what Araújo proposes, cultural changes must be brought up. “The Brazilian political and electoral systems are elitist, racist, personality-oriented and sexist, besides favouring people who have more financial resources and political influence,” she added.

“The selection of candidates takes place in the back rooms where decisions are made by the party elites, where men are in charge,” she said.

Many parties also complain that it is difficult to meet the gender quota, because there are not enough women candidates. They say the quota requirement causes distortions, such as the naming of female candidates merely to live up to the law, who do not even campaign and thus do not win votes.

Rangel said this has always been a concern among some people in the women’s movement.

“Unfortunately, the quotas were not an incentive for parties to invest financial and political capital in women candidates,” she said.

As “the conservative and sexist institutions that they are,” Brazil’s political parties prefer female candidates who basically do nothing, “in order to continue repeating the mantra that women are not interested in politics,” she said.

But Diniz questioned that analysis, saying “the argument of the shortage of women candidates” is false.

He said that in this year’s elections there were 133,868 women candidates for 57,353 town councils around the country, “which means there were more than two women for each available seat.”

“The problem is that the parties do not invest in political training for women or in their candidacies, because they have historically been controlled by men, who resist giving up ground,” he said.

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