Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Radio Interview with Dr Melanie Sully, Quotas Women and Politics

The Quotas Debate by Dr Melanie Sully

Recently a row broke out in Austria on party quotas to boost the numbers of female Members of Parliament.

The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) in Upper Austria kept to the order on its candidate list to replace a female MP and sent the next one down, a male.

Whilst the electoral law foresees adherence to the list and the next one has the right to go to parliament, rights can be renounced.

But the local party organisation in a vote decided otherwise. Which raises the question, what are quotas good for especially since now the percentage of female MPs in the Austrian parliament hovers around the 30% mark considered as the minimum necessary for international commitments and as the critical mass to make a real breakthrough for female political participation. For more on this see the work of the OSCE/ODIHR gender unit.

The parties have quotas but there are no sanctions if they are not observed so now this whole problem will be looked at (see also interview in the Wiener Zeitung with the author).

European Experience

Other European countries have party quotas, some election law based quotas and in France the parity principle is in the constitution but it does not determine the placement on the list. France has financial penalties for parties ignoring the parity requirement so state funding is lost but is worked out in relation to the number of votes acquired by parties in the first round. This hits the smaller parties hardest. Recently financial penalties were increased so now even the bigger parties think twice before drawing up the lists.

Portugal also has financial sanctions for infringement of the quota laws which can apply to campaign funds or state funding received.

More effective sanctions seem to be the rejection of candidate lists submitted by parties which do not meet the requirements of gender balance. This is the case in Spain, Belgium and Slovenia. The parties have a certain time to resubmit the lists.

In Croatia parties get a bonus from state funding of a certain percentage if they meet gender requirements for the candidate lists.

Ireland recently passed new party finance laws which foresee a loss of state funding for those parties ignoring the gender balance on their lists. This option was once put forward by the Greens in Austria and more recently has found some support in the SPÖ. But the party finance laws were only recently passed and it is doubtful if there would be enough support to reopen the topic.

Why do parties find it so hard to select women candidates?

One argument often put forward against the selection of women for “winnable” seats is that voters do not like women candidates so much. Therefore the parties reckon they will lose votes. This is especially important in Austria for the so-called basic seat (Grundmandat) which the main parties win proportionally more of see webpage of the Austrian parliament   

The next question following from this would be, why is it that female candidates are not much preferred by the electorate? Is it the result of lack of confidence, training, finance, family, the fact that politics is too confrontational and seen as more suited to the “Alpha animal” as referred to recently in an Austrian paper.

Clearly the more women in parliament, the more likely voters are to regard female candidates as competent and suitable politicians. So that is why the 30% barrier is an important indicator.

The next question is who takes the decisions on the candidate lists?

Is this group of people gender balanced? Are the party structures and hierarchy themselves dominated by males? Are the parties setting a good example in this respect?


What criteria do they look at for candidates? Is it clear what a party is considering in making the selection apart from the obvious point the candidate should win.

Who is involved in making the decisions? Are there hearings by party members?

And after the selection, is there transparent information published on why that decision was made?

So why is it important? Currently most parliaments are dominated by on average 50 year old white males in Europe. The parliament does not have to be a mirror of society but in this day and age it needs to be inclusive ie not just a fair gender balance but also include others in society to combat the feeling that parliaments are simply not relevant to peoples lives.

September 12 2014

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Austrian FM4 radio (English) interviewed head of Go-Governance on the topic of women in politics in the news with a controversy on candidate selection on a party list and the election of a female Speaker of parliament, one of a few in the EU countries. Hear interview and other stories on FM4 Reality Check 1.9. 2014
Female parliamentary Speakers are a rarity. There are at present (August 2014) in the EU countries six female Speakers of parliament (Lower House) including large countries such as Italy and Poland. Others are from the Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania and Portugal. This accounts for just 25% including Austria. The second and third parliamentary presidents in Austria are male; by convention the Speaker should come from the largest party in this case the Social Democratic Party.