Elections test Spain's new gender-parity law

Sunday's elections are expected to bring 7,000 women into local and regional offices, where they currently hold less than a third of the seats.

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 ¤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 ¤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.

In Finland, parity initially encountered the same problem. "Many municipalities didn't want to implement the law," says Anne Maria Holli, a political scientist at the University of Helsinki. "But then they noticed another law already on the books that allows any citizen to file a complaint about the unlawful composition of public entities. That made the new law effective."

More important, says Ms. Holli, is the effect on mind-sets that quotas can have. "Eventually, people start to think it's normal to have both sexes in government."

That's key for Spain, says Maribel Montaño, Secretary of Equality for the Socialist Party, who acknowledges that the law won't solve everything. "The law by itself isn't going to change mentalities," she says. "We've lived with machismo for so many centuries that we're not going to get rid of it quickly. But if we don't begin by changing the law, it will take a lot longer to change people's attitudes."

Ms. Montaño also predicts public services will improve. "Women are going to bring new political agendas with them," she says, "like better protection for caregivers, or urban development that takes into account the needs of families."

Not everyone is happy about the law. The opposition Popular Party declared it unconstitutional. And on websites like discriminacionpositiva.com, men have complained about the quota as "Taliban feminism."

One of the groups least happy with the new law is the Popular Party's electoral slate for the Canary Islands town of Garachico. All of the candidates on the list are female, but because the legislation says that no gender can hold more than 60 percent of the spots, the Garachico slate looks to be illegal. Pilar Merino, who heads the list, is outraged.

"The Law of Equality has good points, but in our case, its effect is totally reversed," she says. "Citizens should be able to vote for whom they want, based on the candidate's talent. Merit is the true arbiter of equality."

The Socialists allege that the all-woman Garachico list is a Popular Party ploy to undermine the law (a charge Merino adamantly refutes), and both sides are awaiting the final Constitutional Court ruling on its legality. In other cases, parties have taken matters into their own hands. One party, for example, promised slots to 10 men, then added women to the list to comply with the law.

But the Socialists are confident that gender equity is not far off. "One day, this law won't be necessary," Montaño says.

• Susan Sachs contributed reporting from Paris.

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