Electoral systems should ensure women get fair representation
By Jealousy Mawarire
Fundamental to understanding the repression, exclusion and general oppression of women is the need to understand how systems the world over, political, social and economic, have contributed to the subjugation of women. And any form of movement, feminist or otherwise, that seeks to fully subvert the subservient position that women find themselves in, has to initially deal with the idea of grounding understanding of this oppression in theory and practice. It is in light of this that electoral systems have to be choreographed in a manner that ensures women get fair representation.
A lot has been said about how electoral systems have benefited the incumbents. Other works have also cited how opposition political players and ethnic and racial minorities have been sidelined from government and parliamentary participation by electoral systems that ensure the dictatorship of the winners. Sadly, very little has been said about how all the electoral systems, Majority –Plurality Systems, Proportional Representation and Semi –Proportional Systems have ensured men remain the dominant political players in any system of governance that stem out of an election process.
It is pertinent to outline here that every form of political, economic and social practice that is meant to perpetuate male domination is proffered apparently in gender-neutral ways that only critical inquiry can expose. Democratic constitutions, as Thenjiwe Mtintso, Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa noted, just give the general direction which democratic trajectories take, but do not get into the fundamentals of how the oppression of women can be eradicated.
She argues that “Democratic constitutions deliver formal, but not substantive equality” and that “a conscious development of theory is critical to help us understand the workings of patriarchy, its character and form in our countries as it exists in and interacts with other oppressive forms such as racism and capitalism.” Mtintso further notes that “Indigenous approaches, informed by other experiences but based on our concrete situation should be applied” to our approaches to ensuring gender equality and these could take the form of re-orienting existing electoral practices to ensure they conform to the objective of bring about gender parity.
It is interesting to note that, hitherto, efforts to address the exclusion of women from the political playground have always been mooted as stop gap measures to quell the ever-rising voices of women calling for political recognition and equality yet circumventing the real patriarchal nature of most political systems that have ensured women are always subjugated.
Piecemeal changes to electoral processes in line with the 30 percent quota suggested by the 1997 Southern African Development Community (SADC) declaration on gender development are some of the measures put in place as safety nets to contain calls for true proportional representation of women in politics- PROPORTIONAL in the sense of women being allocated seats in line with the percentage female votes cast. It is therefore, critical that every existing electoral system be examined with gendered lenses.
The electoral process has been taken by feminists as the most conducive political arena to be changed if gender parity in political representation could be realised. This realisation stems from the apparent malleability of electoral systems compared to cultural systems that promote male dominance. While there is consensus that most electoral systems favour men when implemented, there is considerable agreement that the PR system, where it has been implemented, has resulted in more women being elected than where other systems have been used.
Women have always had a slight advantage in proportional representation (PR) systems compared to other systems. There is a considerable accumulation of comparative evidence that underlines the structural advantages of PR in advantaging women’s representation. Of the top 10 countries as of March 1998 in terms of women’s representation – Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, the Seychelles, Germany, New Zealand, Argentina and Austria – all utilized various forms of proportional representation. Several individual country situations, in which electoral systems have been changed, have further emphasized the apparent structural superiority of PR systems.
Good as this might appear, there is need to transform the PR practice to ensure it truly represents, in percentage ratio, the number of women who vote in line with the number of seats available. While PR has been touted as one electoral system that offers a glimmer of hope to those that advocate for proportional representation in its entirety, no efforts have been made to look at the merits of allocating seats proportionate to the gender aggregation of votes.
The voting process has been made to appear as a gender-neutral exercise where the ultimate vote does not reflect the gendered nature of the total votes cast. While arguments could be proffered as to the wisdom, or lack thereof, of ensuring ballot papers reflect the gender of the voter, in cases where gender equality is seriously considered, one would argue that it is not a wild idea. It is absolutely discriminatory to have 10,5 percent women parliamentarians in a country where 56 percent of the voters are women.
It is with this understanding that PR can be improved to ensure the allocation of seats, between men and women, would reflect the ratio of male-to-female votes cast. Hypothetically, a political party that wins 46 percent of the total vote in an election where 100 seats are at stake and 75 percent of the votes cast are from women, has to reserve 75 percent of the 46 seats to women. This means that 35 of the 46 seats go to women.
There should be some logical benchmark from which proposals for women representation stems from. Currently, the call for 50-50 percent representation, while it is a move in the right direction, should be face-lifted to ensure where there are more women voters than men, the percentage seats allocated to women should be proportional and commensurate with the ratio of male to female voters.
Even where PR is not the principle electoral system, measures can be put in place to enforce a system that would enable more women representatives. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) has proposed proportional representation to be merged to FPTP to come up with the best electoral system for the parliamentary vote and PR proper for the senate. This system is called the Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MPPR). It is has been used in Lesotho with the dual advantage of increasing women participation and ensuring members of parliament would still be accountable to the electorate. The system would entail that FPTP would be used for contested parliamentary seats while PR would come into force for compensatory seats which, in the current situation, are occupied by non-constituency MPs appointed by the executive.
The emphasis should therefore, be on being as innovative as possible to ensure the goal of increasing women participation and representation is enhanced.
Jealousy Mawarire is a media practitioner with a special interest in gender
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