José Aquino


February 25, 2008

José Aquino

judge from the Administrative Chamber of the Dominican Republic’s Central Electoral Assembly

In iKNOW Politics’s first interview with a man, Dr. José Ángel Aquino discusses the issues of political harassment, proposals for improving the quota system and political financing. Further, Dr. Aquino provides suggestions on how to enhance women’s political participation and secure support from men.

iKNOW Politics: In what context did your work begin to focus on women’s political participation? Was there a common reaction, whether positive or negative from your colleagues, both females and males?

In 1988, I participated in the Dominican Republic’s Investigation Center’s contest for “Action for Women” on the prison system and female criminality. Although I cannot claim to be a feminist, I was always interested in feminist theories having studied the major women writers from the US and Latin America. 

In Santo Domingo, a quota for women’s political representation was approved in 1997 and was implemented for the first time in 1998. I was working at the Gender Studies Center, and we proposed a research project to study the impact that the feminine quota had had on the political representation of women. The analysis went beyond the traditional feminist demand for greater representation, and also aimed to study –an issue that has been my focus: the electoral system, and to see how the system’s characteristics as well as historical circumstances can favour or disadvantage women’s political representation.

Once the research was published, I began to participate in debates, both within the Dominican Republic as well as in Latin America. During 2007 we put together an updated study about the Electoral System and Women’s Representation in Latin America. During the development of the study, there were a few points of disagreement with some women researchers. Their emphasis was more centered on making demands and the feminist fight.

My focus was on the electoral system. My vision may be a ¨masculine¨ one, but I feel that the two are complementary. In my country many women question the achievements of the quota, arguing that it should not be 25% but rather 50%, not only 33% but 50%. They believe that it is not fair, as they have means to compete in equal conditions. There are men as well who make the same argument. I have not had any fundamental disagreements with my female colleagues, though there may be differences of opinion on political positions.

One example where we have worked together is in response to the following: in the last elections, 14 candidates were forced to resign – which was a case of political harassment – and they were substituted by 14 men. Upon discovery of the situation, the social organization Citizen Participation, for which I was working, together with other groups, denounced the case. However before doing so we had a small conflict with the women’s groups. They did not understand the problem. The Secretary of Women, like other women’s organizations, did not take much notice of the conflict nor did they give the topic much importance, only realizing its impact and importance after the elections had passed.

iKNOW Politics: Our first Virtual Debate on the Elimination of Violence against Women involved in Politics will take place from the 10th to the 14th of December 2007. Do norms or proposals to legislate this topic exist in the Dominican Republic? Are there organizations that systematically work on the topics of harassment and violence against women in politics?

In the case already mentioned, the electoral organ was principally responsible. Upon substituting men for women, those political parties were violating the minimum quota established by law, making the dismissal of the female candidates illegal. The electoral organ, however, did not assume the responsibility. This is not the first time that this has happened. In 1998 some political parties tried to do something similar, but in this moment, the electoral organ assumed a greater responsibility than that which it assumed in 2002.

Unfortunately, in 2006, just a few days before the elections, more than 100 changes took place, affecting not only women but also men. The most relevant were the changes of female legislators. In the case of the men, the majority were community representatives at the municipal level. This, in the short term, had a negative impact on the political parties that made this maneuver, because the women that had been substituted protested and in the end, the great part of these positions were lost. The only party that fulfilled the quota for women, emerged in the most “politically advantageous” position.

This is the reverse of the fundamental idea – which persists without an empirical basis – that people do not vote for women and that women “discredit” the electoral lists. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, the party that had the most women and fulfilled the quota was awarded the vote of the electors. The Forum of Women in Politics is an important organization which brings together parliamentarians and elected representatives working in this topic. There are also social organizations that deal with this topic within the framework of a series of demands by women that go beyond the strictly political-electoral field.

iKNOW Politics: What is the current situation in the Dominican Republic with regards to women’s political participation, at the level of the political parties as well as in the Legislative and Executive branches?

We have not had the success that Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Peru have had in implementing the quota for women. But this comes about for different reasons. Some believe that it is because of the preferential vote, but I do not share this view. I believe it is due to the fact that we have created smaller and smaller electoral districts and because of this, there are fewer possibilities that the under-represented sectors, of women and young people, are able to emerge as winners. At the municipal level we have had more success because the community representatives accept the 30% quota for the representation of women.

In the Republic’s Senate, we do not have a quota, therefore the representation is minimal, at barely 6%. The Executive branch has the most worrisome representation of women, with barely 2 or sometimes 3 female ministers present in each cabinet, usually the Secretary of Education, Secretary of Women, and sometimes the Secretary of Public Health. In very few occasions have we had a woman as the Administrative Secretary of the Presidency, or what would be called the Head of the Cabinet in other countries. For the most part the cabinets, Secretaries of State, and Vice-Secretaries of State are men.

iKNOW Politics: You have worked on the topic of quotas from different angles. What other projects and goals do you have in relation to quota laws?

In the near future we need to work on legislative reform and better political consensus. The idea would be first to increase the quota from 33% to 40%, as it is in Costa Rica. The quota must be applied in all areas, in the Senate, the unions, the Municipalities, and in the Executive Branch. Then comes the topic of reform of the representation system, suggested from the Republic’s Constitution. If the proposal under consideration now is approved, it would be a mixed system based on electoral districts in a big national list that would be precisely monitored.

The only model in Latin America –and a quite successful model – is that of Argentina, because it assumes as a basis, the success of each political party, therefore the percentages are applied respectively and each one guarantees an increase in the representation of women. In Costa Rica and Honduras, the quota has been successful because the electoral districts are bigger. In bigger electoral districts, the blocked lists function very well in favour of the quota. But, when the electoral district is small, if there is no guarantee that women will occupy the first positions -and if there is a multiparty system– the situation changes still more.

For the men, the vote will be divided between three or four parties. If there are five parliamentarians, four men will be listed and one woman but usually the woman will go in the second or third position. In Peru, experience with the open list has shown that the people do vote for women. If blocked lists were established it would be disadvantageous for women. We are evaluating all of these experiences, in order to discuss them with the legislators and with women themselves, within the framework of the reform which will take place in the country in 2008, the year of the presidential elections. I reiterate that there is no consensus. There are many women who believe that it is the preferential vote that has impeded women. However, our experience in the 1998 elections with the closed and blocked lists had an even worse result.

iKNOW Politics: What do you think about public financing and political incentives for women to pursue a career in politics? Would you propose an incentive that allows this type of financing in certain cases? Are you aware of relevant experiences in the region?

The topic of public financing needs discussion. We still have a clientalistic system in which women face more difficulties than men in obtaining economic support and funds. There are interesting cases in the region like that of Panama where 10% of public financing is earmarked for support to women candidates. Then we have the case of Haiti where an incentive is given not only to those who fulfill the quota of 30% but to the party that guarantees that of the 30% proposed, 20% are elected.

It’s a case of a positive incentive, if you have more women, you have more public funds. This began with the recent law and was only applied in the elections of 2006. In general it is necessary to regulate the electoral campaigns, to decrease their spending. If the electoral campaigns decrease their costs, the under-represented majorities - essentially in our region and in my country, youth and women - will benefit.

iKNOW Politics: Based on your experience, do you believe that online networking is important for women who are already in politics or women who want to enter politics? What do you think of the iKNOW Politics initiative?

When I began doing this type of work, one of the fundamental support sources that I found was from the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU), which has updated online information about all the parliaments in the world. I am convinced that the online networking and research offers certain advantages. In the first place, it obliges political women to integrate themselves in the virtual world, and in this technological age we know that knowledge is power, to the extent that we can make this information widely available, there is a direct benefit for women.

Women who are involved in these networks have access to information and technological tools which can help them develop their capacity and make it easier for them to seek training, funding, and above all, to broaden their horizon by learning about other successful experiences in the area of political participation. The exchange that takes place across the online networks, and especially within the context of the iKNOW Politics initiative, is essential.

iKNOW Politics: What suggestions would you share with women involved in politics?

They need to know the electoral system, the electoral rules, and this is not a project that they should leave to their delegates. The women themselves have to get to know the whole system. Electoral statistics are not only in numbers. It is also important to know their electoral district. The size of an electoral district is basic. If an electoral district is small, there is less possibility that under-represented groups will be elected. The topic of boundary delimitation is basic. Where the electoral district is smaller, there is less of a possibility that it will integrate the under-represented majorities. This has been demonstrated in decades of studies.

Women in politics should involve themselves in their societies, and for this reason their discussion ought not to concentrate on the political participation of women but rather on equality of gender and equal opportunities. Thus, the prejudices will decrease. It is also important to integrate men in their campaign and financing committees.

iKNOW Politics: What advice would you give in order on how to incentivize men to support increased participation of women in politics?

First, one must emphasize what has been achieved in the participation of women. In the last 50 years women have advanced in the field of political participation. I have an optimistic vision and believe that many topics which were previously not on the public, parliamentarian or governmental agenda have been proposed and incorporated thanks to the greater participation of women in the political field. Sometimes women are accused of emphasizing the same topic or handful of topics.

But, it has to be understood that the topics of family, children, and domestic violence, were topics once shunned from the political sphere. If we continue to emphasize what the political participation of women has achieved, men will offer their support. I do not believe that men do not vote for women. The surveys that have been done in my country have shown that the majority of men actually support women. Not because the women are more honest and serious than men – I do not believe in these types of prejudices – but rather, because in the broader sense, women have a different political vision.

There are women, who have had a very bad performance, just like there are men, but in general, from my experience, the political participation of women has shown great benefits and their initiatives have been very valuable for the whole community. Politicians must make alliances, and women have to align themselves with men in politics. More than 50% of our population is women, more than 70 – 80% of universities’ population is women. We are in an age in which the dominance of women is ever increasing. A male politician needs the vote of women as well as their support and knowledge. I repeat that women candidates and their supporters should emphasize the benefits that women’s political participation brings. How to make alliances is really just a cost-benefit analysis. If male politicians assume the topics that are important to women and promote their political participation, at the end they too (the men) will share in the benefits.

iKNOW Politics: Would you like to make any final comments?

We have to increase the quantity of regional meetings which can serve as spaces of debate and important exchanges. In 2003, during a Latin American event on challenges to women’s political participation, several benefits of their participation were also noted. We must also fortify the statistical and electoral research which organizations like IDEA and CAPEL have already been supporting. Creating permanent mechanisms for collaboration and, above all, strengthening the electoral organs in the different countries, relies on permanent support programs for women. In the Electoral Tribunal we are promoting the creation of a permanent politician leadership program for women which will make it possible to organize meetings on capacity development, promotion and training.