Tunisia’s new constitution tackles a recurring problem in republican politics: disproportionately low representation of women in national assemblies—a fact worth considering today on International Women’s Day. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke on the occasion, noting improvements for women in the fields of political participation, but rightly expressed concern that many continued to be deprived of their rights. The world average for female political engagement hovers around 21 percent, but the average in Arab states is five points less. Tunisia’s constitution includes perhaps the world’s most ambitious provision regarding female representation, requiring the state to seek parity between men and women in all elected assemblies, not just the national parliament. The details of how that provision will be interpreted—to be worked out in a forthcoming electoral law under debate in the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA)—will directly impact women’s political participation and representation.
As long as there have been special measures to promote female participation in parliaments, there have been political parties circumventing those requirements. Take Mexico, which implemented a quota in 2002. Articles 219 and 220 of Mexico’s Federal Code for Election Institutions and Procedures (COFIPE) require that there can be no greater than a 40/60 split between genders for political party candidates. Since then, political parties in Mexico have used several tricks to skirt the law. The controversies and merits of gender quotas aside, how are they undermined once they are already on the books?
Mexico offers three pitfalls that Tunisia should avoid in order to effect genuine social progress. Assembly members should take measures to anticipate and address ways in which parties will circumvent the law. They should avoid language that blatantly contradicts anti-discrimination laws in the constitution, and they should resist the temptation to use quotas as a band-aid solution to gender inequality in politics.
Perhaps Mexico’s most famous example of circumventing gender quotas is the rise of “juanitas,” typically wives, girlfriends, daughters, or party members who run for election, register male substitutes (suplentes), and resign in favor of their substitute. Iraq has used substitutes to address a different problem: assassination of candidates by political opponents. If a candidate is murdered but an ally immediately takes his or her place, then the incentive to kill is reduced. In the case of the juanitas, the stabilizing function of the substitutes is abused to circumvent the gender quota. This practice undermines the policy of parity and engenders negative stereotypes.
The risk of similar abuse is high in Tunisia. Tunisia uses a closed-list system, under which voters in each constituency select a list of candidates presented in order by a political party. The more votes a list gets, the more seats are drawn from the list. In 2011, Tunisia implemented a “vertical zipper”: a list that must alternate between men and women. If a woman is drawn from the list and resigns, the seat drops to the next member of the list: by a law a man. In this way, the juanita tactic could easily be replicated. The Assembly could avoid this problem by mandating that upon the resignation of a member of parliament, the seat drops to the next member of the list of the same gender.
Tunisia used a vertical zipper in 2011, yet women only won about one-quarter of the seats. Of the forty-nine women in the Assembly, forty-two of them represent one party: Ennahdha, the moderate Islamists. There are only seven women representing secular parties out of an Assembly of 217 members. Despite the vertical zipper system, gender was not a requirement at the top of the list, skewing the results against secular women. Almost all parties topped their lists with men, meaning that a party would have to win more than one seat in order to get a woman elected; the only party that consistently won more than one seat was Ennahdha. One solution would be to require parties to alternate the gender at the head of the list across constituencies, selected at random—called a horizontal zipper.
Libya had a horizontal zipper in 2012 parliamentary elections, albeit for only 80 of 200 overall seats. Even so, political parties tried to get around the requirement by registering de jure separate but de facto affiliated parties in every electoral district. Because the lists were legally separate, the elections commission had no way of enforcing the horizontal zipper. The Tunisian Assembly might avoid this problem by randomly assigning the gender of heads of lists to all lists in a constituency, instead of imposing the requirement across the lists of individual parties.
An unintended consequence of gender quotas in Mexico has served to actually reduce female participation in the country’s political parties. During internal elections at the beginning of this month for Mexico’s conservative PAN party, female candidate won seven of the eleven leadership vacancies, but were forced to abdicate one to a male counterpart in compliance with Mexico’s quotas. In the case of the PAN, efforts to institutionalize female participation resulted in their exclusion.
Close observers of Tunisian politics noted the contradiction between Article 46 of the constitution, which requires the state to seek gender parity in elected assemblies, and Article 21, which provides that all Tunisians are equal before the law without any discrimination. There is an echo of this contradiction in Mexico. Several cases have been brought to Mexico’s Supreme Court challenging Mexico’s Federal Election Institute and Articles 219 and 220 on the grounds that Article 4 guarantees equal treatment of men and women under the law. Mandating female presence on campaign tickets while maintaining gender equality under the law is a complex problem, which Mexico has largely failed to address. A similar battle might be in store for Tunisia’s new constitutional court.
Perhaps the biggest pitfall of Mexico’s gender quotas is that they serve as a band-aid for a much larger wound. Insufficient government-sponsored programs exist in grade schools, universities, or workplaces to systematically encourage women to adopt leadership roles in their local communities. With such little leadership support and guidance in education and work environments, imposing quotas at the highest levels of government is mere cosmetics. A top-down, quota approach fails to address a leadership gap that begins far before political campaigns. Both Mexico and Tunisia should avoid relying exclusively on quotas and take a more holistic approach toward encouraging gender parity in politics.
Cory Siskind is Senior Consultant at Booz & Co, based in Mexico City. Duncan Pickard is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, based in Berlin.