BRAZIL: Electoral Reform "Just a Sop" to Women

Friday, July 10, 2009
South America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

The Brazilian government is congratulating itself on the first-stage approval of a draft electoral law that increases women's participation in party politics. However, the women's movement says it introduces no changes to a power structure that excludes women from politics.

Changes to electoral law 9,504-97, approved Wednesday by the lower house of Congress, must be confirmed by the senate, and could enter into force in time for the October 2010 presidential, parliamentary and state elections.

The draft law requires five percent of party funds to be set aside for promoting women's political participation, and ten percent of campaign advertising purchased by each party to be used for women candidates.

Celebrated as "a victory" by the governmental Special Secretariat of Policies for Women (SEPM), the draft law also obliges parties to nominate women candidates for at least 30 percent of elected positions. Failure to do so will incur a fine equivalent to a further 2.5 percent of party funds to go towards the promotion of women's participation.

The SEPM, a department of the presidency, said in a communiqué that these changes were made possible thanks to the work of a tripartite commission made up of representatives of the executive and legislative branches and civil society.

But some organisations belonging to this commission, like the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services (CFEMEA), said the changes struck "another blow against women."

"The electoral reform does not change the elitist, racist and patriarchal power structure of the Brazilian political system," a CFEMEA communiqué said.

CFEMEA held a protest at the Congress Wednesday after the result had been announced, under the slogan "A woman's place is in politics."

The demonstration was convened by the Brazilian Women's Network (AMB), and was supported by the National Commission of Women Rural Workers and SOS Corpo, a local NGO.

In an interview with IPS, Patricia Rangel of CFEMEA said the changes to the law were like "a minor patch-up job with no power to substantially alter the political exclusion of women," although she said any step toward stimulating women's participation is "welcome."

"It's not a victory, it's just a sop," said Rangel, a political scientist and adviser to CFEMEA.

Like other civil society and women's organisations, CFEMEA wanted the new electoral law to impose "closed list" voting, in which political parties determine beforehand the order in which candidates are elected.

It also pressed for racial, ethnic and gender equality criteria to be adopted in deciding the order of candidates, as well as government financing of electoral campaigns.

According to Rangel, the "open list" voting system in force in Brazil is "very negative" because it allows voters to choose candidates directly from the list. This "personalises politics" and unfairly favours wealthier candidates, in other words "white, middle-aged men," she said.

"They are more likely to be elected because they tend to be in a better economic position than women and black people," Rangel said.

In the absence of structural changes, there will be "essentially no change to the political exclusion that has lasted for centuries in Brazil," she added.

The NGOs also say the amendments to the percentages that were approved were "a stratagem by party leaders to keep women out of politics."

The original proposal for electoral reform stipulated 10 percent of party funds were to be devoted to programmes encouraging women's participation, and 20 percent of campaign advertising would have gone to women candidates.

"They slashed the percentages that we considered to be minimal in the first place," said Joana Santos, who works in informal education at SOS Corpo and is also a member of the AMB.

Santos told IPS she blames the disappointing results in the lower house on the fact that "98 percent of the lawmakers there are men."

"For women to have access to truly democratic participation on equal terms, there has to be a broader reform of the political system itself, not just the electoral rules," she said.

The SEPM emphasised that "in keeping with the global trend," countries must "not only recognise, but actively promote women's right to political participation."

This is an "unpaid debt," said the SEPM, which cited a February 2009 survey by the Brazilian Institute of Statistics and Geography and the Patricia Galvao Institute.

The survey found that 75 percent of respondents were in favour of quotas to ensure political participation by women, and 86 percent approved of penalties for political parties that failed to comply.

Another study cited by the SEPM, carried out by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in September 2008, found that women held only nine percent of seats in the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, placing the country 142nd out of 188 countries studied.

The SEPM compared Brazil's low proportion of women with Cuba, where 43.2 percent of lawmakers were women, Argentina with 40 percent, Peru with 29 percent, Ecuador with 25 percent, Venezuela with 18.6 percent, Bolivia with 16.9 percent, Chile with 15 percent and Paraguay with 12.5 percent women in lower houses of parliaments (or single chambers, where applicable).

"In the Americas, Brazil is only ahead of Colombia, Haiti and Belize," the SEPM concluded.

In Santos' view, such low participation by women in the corridors of political power is due to "a sexist, patriarchal culture."

She said that politicians in Brazil evidently "use women to fill the quotas, but do not give them real opportunities to compete on equal terms with men."