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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 145-158

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Women in East European Parliaments

Steven Saxonberg *

One of the major questions in the consolidation of the new democracies in Eastern Europe is whether women, who comprise half of the population, will participate fully in all aspects of the political process, including voting, organizing, joining political parties, and getting elected to local and national office. One key test of the extent of women's participation in East European politics is their representation in parliament. Parliaments are a major power center; they provide a forum for interest groups (including women) to express their ideas and formulate policy alternatives, as well as a training ground for future cabinet ministers. Consequently, they have great impact on the ability of women and women's organizations to influence political life.

In contrast with Western Europe, female representation in the parliaments of Eastern Europe has decreased markedly in the last decade--by as much as 27.1 percentage points in Romania. The East European countries that were once near the top in the world rankings of female representation are now far behind Northern Europe and even behind many Third World countries. Estonia, the top postcommunist country, is in 30th place--right below Uganda; the top postcommunist country in Central Europe, the Czech Republic, shares 41st place with the Bahamas. For some of the more industrialized postcommunist countries, international comparisons become downright embarrassing. Hungary, for example, which had a respectable 21 percent rate of female representation in the communist era, now finds itself in 88th place, below such poor countries as Botswana.

This decline appears surprising, since one might assume that [End Page 145] democratization would increase women's ability to organize and to demand political representation. One should keep in mind, however, that a decline in female representation in parliament does not necessarily mean a decline in the influence of female politicians. As is well known, under communist rule, parliaments had little or no real impact on decision making. The real power centers were the politburo, the secretariat of the central committee, and the cabinet. Women were almost completely absent from these posts. 1 Consequently, even though women have less representation in the postcommunist parliaments, they may actually have more clout today than under communist rule.

Studies of the industrialized West have highlighted three factors that significantly influence female representation: 1) the type of electoral system; 2) the amount of seats per district (district magnitude) or the amount of seats won per party in each district (party magnitude); and finally, 3) the ideology of the parties. 2 This article will examine whether these explanations hold up for the postcommunist countries. Its focus is limited to the countries that have had relatively free elections. Thus among the former Yugoslav republics, only Macedonia and Slovenia are included, since elections in the other former Yugoslav republics have not come close to meeting international standards. [End Page 146]

In addition to these more systemic factors, the level of female representation in parliament is also influenced by the internal party nominating system. The nominating process has both a "supply" and a "demand" side. 3 On the "supply" side, the key question is whether women are willing to become members of political parties and subsequently, to become candidates for parliament. On the "demand" side, the question is whether voters are willing to vote for female candidates and whether the party nominating organizations are willing to nominate female candidates? If, for example, 40 percent of a party's members, but only 10 percent of those seeking to become candidates, are women, then the problem is on the "supply" side: Not enough women want to become candidates. By contrast, if the main discrepancy is between the percentage of female party members who seek to become candidates and the percentage of women actually nominated, then the problem lies on the "demand" side. The general conclusion from studies of the nominating process is that women will do better on the "demand" side if 1) there are clear and transparent rules that make it easier for women to organize; 2) there is no...


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