Elections Test Spain's New Gender-Parity Law

Article excerpt

In the Spanish coastal town of Tossa de Mar on the Mediterranean, women have long run the public administration while the men were off at sea. But it's a rarity here in Spain, where less than a third of municipal office-holders are women.

The new Law of Equality is expected to change all that, bringing an estimated 7,000 women into local offices in Sunday's municipal and regional elections.

Passed in April to rectify persistent gender inequalities, it extends paternity leave to 15 days and requires large businesses to increase the representation of women on their boards to 40 percent. But what is perhaps its most controversial provision requires political parties to present electoral lists in which neither sex holds more than 60 percent of the slots.

The law makes Spain one of the most progressive countries on gender representation. But as other countries have discovered, true political equality may not be guaranteed: what looks good on paper can be hard to implement in practice.

Nearly 100 countries impose some form of gender quota on political representation. But only a few have achieved approximate parity: Rwanda, Sweden, and Finland (see chart).

France's parity law has significantly improved representation at the local level since it was passed in 2000: In towns with populations of 3,500 or more, the percentage of women elected to city council seats rose from 25.7 in 1995 to 46.4 by 2006.

But at the national level it's had little effect: the number of female deputies rose from 10.9 percent before the law to just 12.3 percent in 2002, when parliamentary elections were last held.

French political parties, which fill allotted parliamentary seats beginning with those at the top of party lists, have gotten around the law by putting women at the bottom of their lists. Or they simply accept the financial consequences of noncompliance.

In 2002, the Union for the Popular Movement (UMP), the party run by newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy, gave up [currency] 4.2 million ($5.6 million) in state funding rather than run an equal number of female candidates for parliamentary elections.

Only 20 percent of its candidates were women. The Socialist Party gave up [currency] 1.6 million with 36 percent women.

But ahead of parliamentary elections in June, there is some improvement. Nearly 48 percent of the Socialist candidates and 30 percent of UMP candidates are women.

"It's not an easy task because we have more than 350 incumbent candidates," Alain Marleix, UMP's election director, told Le Monde newspaper. "But we have made a place for women, and we ... have reserved for them 'winnable' districts" - a departure from the past when women were often put on lists in constituencies where they had no chance of winning. …