After almost five years of eponymous blogging, I’m happy to introduce nothing less than the first guest blogger on this site: Jessika Wide, a former colleague from Umeå who is now a Post Doc at Uppsala University. Jessika’s main line of work concerns the political representation of women and here she writes about the decrease in the share of women MPs at the recent Swedish election and the possible causes.
The results from the dramatic parliamentary election in Sweden are just settled. So far the entry of the Sweden Democrats into the parliament and their position as the holder of the balance of power has attracted most attention. However another striking result is a decrease in female representation, from 47 % to 45 %. The decrease might be seen as marginal, but it is a break in the development. Since Swedish women became eligible in 1921, female representation has constantly increased, election after election. The only exception is the fateful election in 1991.
In 1991 the female representation in parliament decreased from 38 % to 33 %. One reason was the entry of male-dominated populist New Democracy into parliament. Another that the right-wing parties won seats from the left, and the right-wing parties had a lower female representation than the left-wing parties. The decreased female representation was seen as very serious and as a consequence a number of feminists created a network called “the Support Stockings”. The aim of the network was to pressure the political parties to increase the female representation in the election in 1994. Otherwise the network should create a women’s party, which was supported by a majority of the population and seen as a threat by the other parties. The result was that the established parties did increase the share of female candidates, for example the Social Democrats introduced zipped lists. In the election 1994 the female representation increased to 40 %, a new world record at that time.
So, what happened in the election this year? Hitherto the decrease in female representation is said to depend solely on the entry of the Sweden Democrats, with 3 female and 17 male MPs. However this is only half the truth. The female representation has also decreased significantly in some other parties. For example if only the Centre Party and the Liberal Party had sustained their share of female MPs from 2006, the female representation in parliament would not have decreased at all this election, despite the entry of the male-dominated Sweden Democrats.
This is the female representation in the political parties after the election (with female representation 2006 in parenthesis) and the number of MPs in total:
The Left Party: 58 % (64 %), 19 MPs
The Social Democrats: 48 % (48 %), 112 MPs
The Green Party: 56 % (42 %), 25 MPs
The Centre: 30 % (41 %), 23 MPs
The Liberal Party: 42 % (54 %), 24 MPs
The Christian Democrats: 37 % (38 %), 19 MPs
The Moderate Party: 48 % (43 %), 107 MPs
The Sweden Democrats: 15 % (–), 20 MPs
Why do we see this decrease in some parties which normally are considered to be positive towards gender equality and with a previous history of a high female representation? It is even more confusing that the Moderates have a gender-balanced representation, despite the fact that issues concerning gender equality and gender quotas are not very prioritized in the party.
The answer is the electoral system. Sweden has a proportional system which is seen as positive towards female representation, but the country is divided into 20 constituencies. The Social Democrats and the Moderates both received about 30 % of the votes and in most constituencies they won several seats each. Meanwhile the smaller parties have won maximally one seat each in the constituencies. This is nothing new, but it is clear that in this election the right-wing parties have gone to the polls with most lists topped by a male candidate. Since only one candidate from each party is elected it makes no difference that the rest of list is zipped. Also the Green Party and the Left Party won maximally one seat each in the constituencies, but in those parties the candidate selection is coordinated on a national basis to achieve a gender-balance also among the top candidates.
What will be the consequence of the decreased female representation? Most likely we will not see a repeat of the reactions in 1991. Most people will probably consider 45 % to be just as good as 47 %. Still it is the second best in the world (after Rwanda). Moreover we already have a feminist party in Sweden today, Feminist Initiative, which only received a modest 0.40 % of the votes in the election. More likely there will be a discussion within the smaller right-wing parties with a decreased female representation, especially in the Centre Party, which had 50 % female MPs in 2002. There might also be a discussion about the gender distribution of the parties’ top candidates on the ballots in the elections. This affects not only the female representation in parliament but also the gender distribution of positions of power at the national as well as the municipal level. For example, men still dominate in the municipal executive boards and among municipal commissioners.