Campaign Finance and Women’s Representation in Latin America

Ben Raderstorf / The Inter-American Dialogue

The Inter-American Dialogue, along with International IDEA, and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy hosted an event on November 22 looking at the representation of women in politics, and specifically, how campaign finance is an obstacle to having more female participation. Despite positive steps in recent years to encourage more gender diversity in politics, the region continues to struggle with being fully inclusive. Kevin Casas-Zamora, the director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law program at the Dialogue presented a new case study on the effects of campaign finance on female political participation in Colombia and ways in which to create a more inclusive political system. In addition, Ellen Weintraub, a Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, and Angela Rodríguez, executive director the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy for Colombia provided commentary. The event was moderated by Massimo Tommasoli, Permanent Observer for International IDEA to the UN.

Mr. Zamora discussed a case study on what Colombia is doing with regard to political finance and the equal participation of women. He noted that on the whole, little empirical research has been done on this topic. The impact of economic resources on women’s representation has become a prominent issue and there is a concern about inequality and how political finance can subvert democracy. In addition, new forms of affirmative action may be required to achieve gender parity. The study looked at two main questions: 1) What is the role, if any, of political finance in hindering women’s access to political power, and 2) If political finance is an obstacle, how does it compare to other obstacles standing in the way of women’s access to political power?

A brief history of Colombian politics was provided by Mr. Zamora. He noted that Colombia has a long tradition of civilian government but that it also has a high rate of inequality, patronage politics, and a pervasive presence of armed non-state actors. The presidential system is bicameral with a strong decentralization component.

Regarding political finance in Colombian politics, Mr. Zamora indicated that there are adequate regulations, but poor enforcement of those regulations. There is also very limited transparency. In addition, private funding is how most campaigns are run. There are limited forms of financial affirmative action with 15 percent of annual public funding going to women, youth, and ethnic groups. Mr. Zamora noted that unlike many other Latin American countries, no woman has ever been elected president or vice-president. Colombia did install a gender quota in 2011 and female legislative representation has increased.

Mr. Zamora highlighted the main findings of the study. The first finding dealt with money and electoral viability. Political finance in Colombia is strongly candidate-centered and financial support for candidates largely depends on perceptions of electoral viability. Prominent political families have an outsize role in electoral politics in Colombia and incumbency matters regarding electoral viability. Mr. Zamora noted practical implications such as the divide between “insiders” and “outsiders” in Colombian politics, in which most women are considered outsiders. There is a fundraising problem for emerging female leaders. Emerging leaders cannot expect help from their parties which hurts their chances of electoral success.

The second finding that Mr. Zamora discussed was the weakness of the affirmative action policies. Public funding earmarked for women is very limited, poorly monitored, and does not cover campaigns. The amount is only $1 million per year for all parties and disadvantaged groups which limits the amount that can be spent to help female candidates run for office. Additionally, parties do not actively promote female leadership.

The third finding is that there are structural obstacles. Political parties are more macho and masculine oriented than in most organizations which is hostile to women. There is a long tradition of female leadership in civil society groups, but not in politics. It is essential therefore to reform political parties’ internal functioning.

A fourth finding Mr. Zamora mentioned was the obstacles that exist for women regarding caregiving and the hours in which politics are often conducted (at night). This makes it difficult for women to be involved in politics due to caregiving responsibilities which fall disproportionally on them.

The final obstacle discussed by Mr. Zamora was the lack of economic opportunity for women and how this hampers their prospects for entering politics. Women tend to be more economically disadvantaged than men and often do not have the ability to borrow capital or obtain financing for political campaigns.

Mr. Zamora highlighted several policy recommendations for enhancing the representation of women in politics. One recommendation was to improve enforcement of political finance and transparency rules. Another was to increase permanent public funding for the promotion of female leadership and controls over the use of such funding. A third was to earmark public funding for female candidates during campaigns. A fourth recommendation was to adopt mandatory closed lists and introduce female quotas for party structures. A final recommendation was to adopt family friendly schedules for political activities.

Ms. Weintraub discussed the campaign finance issue for women from the U.S. perspective. She noted that like in Colombia, the U.S. has candidate-centered elections and candidates are responsible for finding their own financing. Ms. Weintraub noted the lack of female representation in U.S. electoral politics. Women make up about 20 percent in the U.S. House of Representatives, 20 percent in the U.S. Senate, and 24 percent in state legislatures. It was also noted that few women have ever been nominated for president or vice-president. Hillary Clinton proved that once women do run, they can raise large amounts of money. Hillary Clinton outraised Donald Trump by an amount of two-to-one. Ms. Clinton’s defeat, however, proved that a lot of money does not guarantee that a woman will be successful in winning campaigns in the United States. It was worth noting, according to Ms. Weintraub that white women voted for Trump over Clinton by 10 points. Overall, however, more women voted for Clinton. Ms. Weintraub also noted that no woman in the U.S. has ever led the Department of Defense or the Veterans Administration.

Angéla Rodríguez discussed the case of Colombia and added to Mr. Zamora’s comments. She noted that when discussing women in politics in Colombia, one has to take into account Colombia’s political history. Illegal actors use ways to access the system and many of these actors used women in this way. Many political women got their position through corruption or through male husbands or confidants. Ms. Rodríguez highlighted that the political culture in Colombia needs to change. She also noted that if women try to track political financing or incorporate other forms of transparency, they are shunned by their political party. Gender-based violence is also a major issue for women in politics and there is a dearth of research on this issue. Ms. Rodríguez noted that 90 percent of women elected between 2010 and 2014 have experienced gender-based violence.

Several questions were asked of the panelists. One question was raised about outside influences that hinder women’s ability to be successful in politics. One response was that the media can hurt women’s chances by stereotyping them and perpetuating gender biases. It was also noted that media coverage female candidates is low. There was also a question about how to increase female participation? One response was that broader structural issues need to be addressed and overcome. Finally, it was noted that societies are getting used to having female leaders.


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