Michelle Bachelet

SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)–Chile may have caught the world’s attention by electing its first female president last year, but that doesn’t mean legislators here are rushing to join a regional trend toward gender quota laws for congressional representation.

Cristian Monckeberg, secretary-general for the right-wing’s opposition National Renovation Party–holding 20 of the 120 seats in the House of Representatives–has called President Michele Bachelet’s support for a gender-quota law a “a sickly obsession” that excludes men and creates a “risky and divisive discourse.”

In January the Chamber of Deputies’ Commission on the Family began to hold hearings on a gender quota bill that the ruling left-wing coalition in October revived after four years of inaction. The commission will continue to debate the bill after it returns from summer recess in March.

Chile’s minister for women, Laura Albornoz, says gender quotas are politically tricky because they threaten the political longevity of at least some male legislators.

“Parliamentarians will have to vote on a bill which would result in some of them having to leave,” says Albornoz. “So we have a situation in which they are playing the role both of judge and party to the case. If they pass the law, they’ll have to leave to make room for women. So it’s a complex issue.”

The bill requires political parties to ensure that at least 40 percent of their candidates–from the federal to municipal level–are female. It also modifies various electoral laws to allow the disqualification of a party that doesn’t field enough female candidates.

Targets for Female Representation

Half of the countries in Latin America currently have quota laws to assure the number of political posts for women. Most target 30 percent representation.

In Chile, 15 percent of those in the Chamber of Deputies are women and only two of the country’s 38 senators are female. That puts overall female representation in both houses of Congress combined at 12.6 percent, well behind the regional average of 20 percent for the Americas, excluding Canada and the United States.

When Bachelet took power in Chile, she named women to half the positions in her cabinet and to half the sub-secretary and regional intendent, or administrator, positions in an effort to achieve executive branch parity.

The Geneva-based Inter Parliamentary Union ranks Chile No. 72 in the world on female legislative representation. Within Latin America, the country is 14 out of 18 in the ranking.

“We haven’t made much headway because our political parties have not undergone a profound transformation,” says Maria Antonieta Saa, “in terms of understanding that the presence of women in politics and the elimination of discrimination against women are two important challenges for consolidating democracy.”

Saa, a congresswoman for the Party for Democracy, which is part of Bachelet’s ruling left-wing coalition, was one of 10 deputies who spearheaded Chile’s first bill to increase female political representation.

The bill, introduced in the lower house in early 2003, was quickly sidelined by the former government of President Ricardo Lagos.

Among the first to testify on behalf of quotas in the hearings on the current bill–nearly identical to the earlier version–was Marcela Rios, lead investigator on governance for the Santiago-based Latin American Faculty of Social Science, an independent think tank.

Quota Laws in 50 Countries

Rios in late January noted that 50 countries have adopted quota laws.

Eleven of those are in Latin America. Roughly half of those countries, she said, have passed measures to ensure that women not only make up a guaranteed percentage of candidates, but that women are not placed at the ends of electoral lists.

The countries with the most progressive laws include Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Colombia, which is the only country with a quota law for the executive branch and requires 30 percent female representation in high-ranking, decision-making posts in all state agencies.

Beginning in 1991 with Argentina, 11 Latin American countries adopted quota laws during the 1990s.

Colombia adopted a quota law in 2000. That same year Venezuela revoked its 1997 law, after the nation’s high court declared it unconstitutional. Venezuela’s quota law had applied only to the 1998 election, during which the presence of women in Congress increased to 12 percent from 6 percent. Following the court decision, female representation dropped to around 10 percent.

Most quota laws in the region set their minimum at 30 percent overall representation, combining upper and lower houses. Paraguay calls for 20 percent, Costa Rica for 40 percent.

Rios said quota laws allow countries to speed up the inclusion of women in legislative circles. Among 17 Latin American countries that she has studied, she says women hold an average of 20 percent of seats in national legislatures that have adopted quota laws; 14 percent in those without quotas.

Rios advocates that quota laws be accompanied by constitutional changes to reform electoral laws, since some electoral systems are better designed to increase representation of women.

Varied Success Among Political Systems

Countries with proportional representation–where political parties are assigned a number of seats in parliament corresponding to the degree of support they receive in a given electoral district–have the highest percentage of elected female politicians: 20 percent on average.

In contrast, majoritarian or binominal electoral systems–where winning candidates are those with the most votes in a given district–tend to elect only 11 percent women on average.

Chile’s majoritarian system, with multiple candidates chosen from closed lists, means more than one member can be sent to the assembly per electoral district. Under this system, Chile’s three political coalitions each present two candidates for election, and the top two candidates, from any coalition, with the most votes win.

Still, there’s a catch. The first seat is awarded to the candidate with the most votes, but the coalition that comes first must receive twice the votes of the second-place coalition if it is to win the second seat. This makes it harder for a lower-profile female candidate without entrenched party support in a winning coalition to get elected.

Rios believes Chile’s majoritarian system should be replaced with one built on proportional representation. She served on the so-called Boeninger Commission on electoral reform, which proposed just that. But the Alliance for Chile, the nation’s powerful right-wing coalition, has been fighting such proposals fiercely.

As that debate simmers, Rios is more worried about convincing Chile’s political parties of the need to set mandatory quotas, because voluntary quotas haven’t worked.

Three of Chile’s six largest political parties adopted voluntary quotas ranging from 20 to 40 percent female representation between 1989 and 2005, Rios notes in a book she authored last June, “Gender Quotas: Democracy and Representation.” Despite these voluntary quotas, Chile’s parties presented an overwhelming 90 percent male candidates on their lists, she found.

“Chile’s political parties,” Rios concludes in her book, “have contributed in large part to crystallizing and mounting the barriers that have kept women at the margins of political institutions and decision-making spheres.”

Jen Ross is a Chilean-based freelance journalist who delves into social issues affecting women across the Americas.

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For more information:

“Constitutions Give Slow Birth to Female Blocs”

Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences
(in Spanish):

Inter-Parliamentary Union:

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