As Czech political parties roll out their campaigns for the senate elections next month, supporters of gender equality are worried that not enough women are making it into the upper echelons of Czech politics. The Prague-based NGO Fórum 50%, which advocates equal representation of men and women in politics, has recently launched a campaign titled “Time for change?!” that promotes quotas in Czech politics, trying to get 30% female candidates on every political party’s ballot. I spoke to Jana Smiggels Kavková, the director of Fórum 50% about how quotas can work in the Czech Republic, the presidential elections next year and how her beliefs are reflected in her personal life. I started by asking her to tell me more about the new campaign:
“The aim of the campaign is to promote quotas as a tool that really helps in getting more women into decision-making positions, mainly in politics. I wouldn’t be so optimistic as to think that we would already reach 30 percent of the ballots in the upcoming elections. I guess, it’s too late for that, but promoting quotas is more of a long-term goal. We think that the understanding of what quotas actually are and how they work is quite bad in our country. So the aim [of the campaign] was also to explain to the broader public what quotas really are and how they work, and to explain that they are not undemocratic, and that is a common tool that is widely used around the world to get more women into top positions in politics. This should be an awereness raising campaign, but it should also prepare the groundwork for us to lobby for the adoption of quotas among politicians.”
According to a poll carried out about two years ago, around 86 percent of Czechs favor having more women in politics. So, obviously, you have the public opinion on your side. Are there any politicians that are already negotiating with you as well and will possibly support these changes in the future?
“Yes, we do have some contacts among politicians. Unfortunately, the only party openly supporting quotas, even legislative quotas, is the Green Party, which is not in the parliament at the moment. But, we are also negotiating with other parties, for example the Social Democrats. There are some people in that party that favor this proposal, but there are others who are against it. The situation is much more difficult and complicated in other parties. So there is rather a lot of resistance towards quotas among the politicians, both among women and men.”
This is a system that has worked quite well in some Nordic countries, but how do you envision it working in the Czech Republic?
“There are two types of quotas. One type is for the results, which is reserved seats. That’s not very common. They have it, for example, in Rwanda. We want to introduce the other type, which are quotas for the lists of candidates – the ballots. It’s basically quotas that regulate the starting point of the elections. Our idea was that there should be certain that there should be a minimum number of candidates of both genders on the ballots, but also say that there should, for example, at least 30 percent of the positions should be occupied by men or women. We think it should be gender neutral. Who knows, may be in the future it will be men who need the support. The goal is really to reach some kind of a balance.
“Another important thing is the ranking order. There should be a rule also stating, for example, that every third person on the list should be of the opposite sex. This how the Green Party does it, which actually means that every third person would be a woman. In the Nordic countries they use a zip system, which means you have men and women alternating on the list. But this is too ambitious for our country. So our proposal is to have at least 30 percent on the ballots, and that the first two positions on the list should be given to a man and a woman.”
Currently, there are around 40 female MPs in the lower house of the Czech Parliament. This fall, there will be upper house elections. What are your predictions about how many women will get onto the ballot and how many will make into the upper half of the ballots?
“The electoral system is different for the upper house. It is a majoritarian system, so there is only one candidate for each party in each of the districts, which is usually less favourable for women in terms of getting elected. Also, if you compare the representation of women in the two chambers of parliament – in the Senate [the upper house] it is 18.5 percent at the moment, while it is 22 percent in the Chamber of Deputies. So it works different. And it is also impossible to have any kind of quotas for this type of electoral system.
“The parties are almost finished with nominating their candidates, and as far as I know there are not very many female candidates among them. Also, there are always about five districts where there are only men running in the Senate elections. So there are always regions where you actually have not choice if you want to vote for a woman, because there are only men running. And I think it is going to be similar this year.
“And what is interesting, is that in the last four elections the proportion of women that were nominated as candidates for the Senate has been decreasing with every election. But despite that, the number of female senators is increasing. So, it is fair to say that women are successful, despite the fact that their parties are not giving them enough of a chance.”
In 2010, Public Affairs was another party besides the Green Party that had quite a lot of female candidates, and unlike the Greens they made into the Parliament. They not only had a lot of female candidates, but also a lot of female candidates who were very visible and had a lot of political potential. Since then, their party had a number of scandals, some of which involved their most prominent female MPs. Do you think that has worsened the public opinion of women in politics?
“Well, I hope it didn’t. We did have many questions especially from the Czech media exactly the same thing: Doesn’t this mean that people will stop supporting female politicians. But we always say that it is nonsense. We are not saying that all women in politics are angels, and they have the same right to be average or even bad politicians as the men. Every week, we read a new scandal about a male politician, and we are used to it. Nobody questions whether men shouldn’t be in politics, because they failed.
“This is really unfair, and it shows clearly the double standard that is applied to women in politics. The moment a woman fails everybody is saying – look at her, this means women are not good enough to be politicians. So I hope this didn’t in fact damage the good name that women have in our country, but I would say that it didn’t.”
Of course, there is a very strong and popular woman right now in Czech politics. Miroslava Němcová, who is the speaker of the lower house, has managed to keep her name clean and is very well respected. This brings me to the next question, which is about the presidential elections, which will take place early next year. A poll came out in the summer that said that more than half of the Czech population would prefer a female president. Yet, now, when at least six women have announced their intent to be presidential candidates, there is still not a single woman in the top three most popular candidate, according to opinion polls?
“I really think that people have high hopes when it comes to women and their role in high politics. I also think that at the moment they are really fed up with the political culture in our country. I think everyone is a bit disappointed in politics in general and they really hope that women will bring some sort of change. And I actually think they would, not because they are better, but simply because if you have a better gender balance, I think the way that the Parliament works would change. And there has been a number of polls that have shown that people support the idea of having more women in politics.
“Miroslava Němcová was actually at some point one of the possible candidates for the presidential elections, but she changed her mind for some reason. I think she would have had quite a good chance of getting to the second round. And as for the other female candidates, I am afraid that none of them are strong enough personalities that could get enough attention and support. Many of these women are not very well known.
“I would really love to have the first woman president, but I think we should maybe focus on the next election and try to find a strong female candidate. We should start looking for one now, and then, I think, we may be successful.”
Your name also tells us that you really do stick to your beliefs. You have not only taken you husbands name, but you also kept your maiden name, and you did not add the traditional female –ová ending to your husband’s last name. Are there other aspects of your personal life that show your belief in the equality of genders?
“So the things that I fight for in my work, I try to the also implement in my personal life. I have one son, and we share the responsibilities for his upbringing with my husband. I had spent only half a year on maternity leave, which is very short for Czech standards. And afterwards I came back to work only part-time and my husband was also working part-time. So we shared equally our work and taking care of our son. Which is quite unusual for our country. And besides my work I am also involved in other political and feminist activities, so my work is not only a job for me, it is based on a personal belief that I really stand for.”
Thank you so much for coming.
“It was a pleasure for me. Thanks.”