Lately | Politics

Women’s political empowerment meets its limit

By - 14.02.2020

Deputy candidate misses out — because she’s a woman.

Just days after Kosovo’s new government was formed, Jeta Xharra gathered seven new women leaders together on her famous “Jeta në Kosovë” show, which was broadcast on Thursday night. 

It came amid enthusiasm following the news that, for the first time, the Government of Kosovo, led by Albin Kurti, will have 30% of its highest ranking positions filled by women; of 15 ministries, five are led by women. Meanwhile, a woman — Vjosa Osmani — was elected as president of the Assembly for the first time, and another woman — Arbërie Nagavci — is the deputy president of the Assembly.

In the build up to the show, a photo of the women from a shoot taken behind the scenes ended up online and was reposted by the U.S. Embassy with the description “The faces of Kosovo’s new leadership.” The picture immediately went viral, with thousands of shares and different segments of society calling it powerful, inspirational and empowering.

She almost had a seat in the Assembly in her pocket — if it wasn’t for the Law on General Elections.

The image of women politicians wearing serious suits in front of a dark curtain symbolizes a new era for representation of women in higher institutions in the country. This is particularly evident when compared with the distribution of powers in the last government — former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj ended his mandate with just one woman in his cabinet of 21 ministers.  

But almost simultaneously, when the Central Election Commission (CEC) certified the names of the new deputies set to replace those who have moved into ministerial positions, a gloomy reminder was provided that the discussion over gender discrimination is far from over.

Tinka Kurti, a political activist within Vetëvendosje (VV), was the 33rd most voted person from her party’s list. Since VV won 29 seats, and five of its elected deputies have subsequently taken up ministerial positions, she almost had a seat in the Assembly in her pocket — if it wasn’t for the Law on General Elections becoming an obstacle. 

Provisions of the law, similar to those in the Law on Local Elections, require elected officials who subsequently become part of the executive branch to be replaced by new candidates of the same gender. Therefore, Emin Rrahmani (who secured 7,044 votes) and Fitim Haziri (7,542 votes) replaced appointed male ministers as deputies, despite each having received less votes than Tinka Kurti (7,655). 

Minimum quota only

On February 7, Kurti took to Facebook to express her disappointment about gender discrimination enabled by the provisions of the Law on General Elections.

“I would never have believed that I could win the vote but not take office just because I was a woman,” she wrote. “I would not have believed it for any job and ironically it is happening in the Assembly of the Republic.”

A minimum 30% quota of elected deputies being women, set out in the Law on General Elections and Law on Local Elections, is foreseen as a guarantee of women’s participation in politics. It has widely helped the election of younger and unknown first-time candidates, who have later been re-elected without being reliant on this provision. In the last elections, only 13 out of 39 women elected as deputies were reliant on the quota.

But gender expert Merita Limani explained to K2.0 that Kosovo’s laws relating to elections support women only up to the point where the minimum quota for elected deputies of 30% is fulfilled.

“This article should be revised so that where there is under-representation of one gender there is no discriminatory action.”

Merita Limani, gender expert

She points to Article 112.2 of the Law on Elections, which specifies the method for replacing candidates in the Assembly of Kosovo. 

“In this case, it appears that this article has been implemented in accordance with the interpretation given by the law, but which in reality contradicts the affirmative spirit of the same law, which is to encourage women and advance their participation in policy making [through] quotas, etc.,” she says. 

“I think this article should be revised so that where there is under-representation of one gender — in Kosovo’s case, women are still under-represented — there is no discriminatory action.”

Tinka Kurti says the law is outdated and insufficient, asserting that it is only adding to male dominance. 

“From a minimum of 30% it has become a maximum of 30%,” she told K2.0. “From imposing justice for a group who are not equal to achieving at least 30% inclusion and participation in parliament, the law turned out to be 70% for men.”

On the day when the new names were certified, Kurti’s VV colleague, Sami Kurteshi, who was recently elected as a CEC member, raised the issue of injustice for candidates such as Kurti with the head of the CEC, Valdete Daka.  

“We are bound by the Law on General Elections and have a very clear disposition, and there is no place for other interpretations,” Daka replied to him.

Flawed law

Kurti is the first woman to have publicly addressed the provisions on the Law on General Elections, with the CEC telling K2.0 that they have never previously received official complaints from candidates after the certification of new deputies.

After her Facebook post, there were suggestions that similar cases of women missing out on seats due to the stipulation that replacement candidates are of the same gender have also happened in the past.

“Awareness of this is important to me, as is any injustice done to women,” Kurti says. “What is happening must be understood.

She points to the oft-used phrase: “The laws are good but they are not being implemented”: 

“True, laws are often not enforced, but there is also the fact that some laws are flawed, contradictory or inaccurate. This is a case of exclusion by law against the spirit of discourse on equality and justice prevailing in Kosovo.”

She said she intends to take legal measures against the decision. 

Meanwhile, senior party colleagues Arbërie Nagavci and Fatmire Mulhaxha Kollçaku, VV’s deputy leader, have both supported her statement and called for a change to the Law on General Elections. But to date, neither VV or coalition partners LDK have come out with an official statement about taking measures to change the legislation.

Institutionalized gender discrimination

Luljeta Demolli, executive director of the Kosovar Center for Gender Studies, says that the CEC has to start thinking differently about the legislation and quota. She says that the whole quota policy is a result of systematic oppression and underrepresentation of women.

“It doesn’t say that only 30% of parliament should be women. It says that a minimum of 30% of women need to be listed on electoral lists,” she says. “Tinka’s case is sending a message that no more than 30% of women can ever come to the parliament. And this is how the CEC is a burden to gender equality.”

The events with Kurti bring fresh scrutiny to the CEC, an institution with a history of gender discrimination. Just 10 days ago, it introduced its new members, composed only of men. 

But the CEC has particularly been met with criticism for not obliging political parties to ensure their electoral lists comprise more than 30% women, thereby prioritizing the Law on General Elections over the Law on Gender Equality. The latter requires equal participation of women at every level of decision-making or representation in Kosovo’s institutions, a position that is being pushed by women’s rights activists.

It is rare for a political party or pre-election coalition to have more than the minimum 30% of women candidates in their electoral lists.

This demand was also highlighted by the Ombudsperson, which last year formally requested that political parties be obliged to offer equal opportunities to women and men on electoral lists as per the Law on Gender Equality. 

Last autumn, ahead of the general elections, the Ombudsperson asked the court to apply temporary measures against the CEC in a bid to ensure that the Law on Gender Equality was being respected. But the request was rejected days later with the Basic Court of Prishtina citing a failure to present evidence. The head of the Ombudsperson institution subsequently told K2.0 that the court “forgot” that in the Law on the Protection from Discrimination, the burden of proof falls on the defendant, not on the plaintiff.

Apart from the CEC, activists also highlight that political parties must also shoulder their own portion of the blame for not respecting more equal gender representation. 

It is rare for a political party or pre-election coalition to have more than the minimum 30% of women candidates in their electoral lists. Even VV, the only party in the last election to have all of its women elected without use of the quota, only included 34 women on its list of 110 deputy candidates.

“The 30% thing isn’t supposed to be something to boast about in the 21st century,” Demolli says. “As with the CEC, political leaders cannot boast about it. It is outdated also for political parties.”

Beyond mere representation

When the new cabinet was revealed, Kosovo Women’s Network stated leadership should be aiming for equal gender representation. While the names of many advisers and deputy ministers are yet to be revealed, to date only men have been appointed by the prime minister as deputy ministers.

But apart from the need to have increased political participation, activists in Kosovo and the wider region point out that the fight for equality should not be limited within the framework of participation alone. 

Liri Kuçi, a Tirana-based activist, says that while many countries may be ranked highly in terms of their gender balance in top positions, many are still known for their human rights violations, dire working conditions and repressive conditions. 

“In such cases, the gender representation quota, as much as it can help break hegemony in leadership and public office, is not necessarily translated into results and policies that improve or favor lives and the activities of women in general,” she says. 

Albania, for example, is the only country in the region with better gender representation in political leadership roles than Kosovo — 50% of its government positions are held by women.

“Positions of women in power have been ‘sold’ for gender representation but at the end of the day this has only served the image of the ruling party.”

Liri Kuçi, Tirana-based activist

According to Kuçi, in Albania’s case the equal representation of women in government doesn’t seem to have brought important initiatives that would challenge social and economic conditions of women in the country. She says that without a progressive political system that aims to fight social inequalities and injustice it becomes harder for women politicians to challenge the status quo through their positions alone.

“In such political systems as Albania’s, it has turned out that the positions of women in power have been ‘sold’ as gender representation but that at the end of the day have served only the image of the ruling party,” she says. 

“Therefore, in Albania we continue to have a large number of women being killed, violated, raped, sexualized, humiliated, trampled and oppressed daily — at home, at school, at work, on the streets, on television and on social media constantly. For years, we haven’t heard a woman in parliament starting their sentence with: ‘Women in our country…”

Despite such shortcomings, Kuçi concludes that it is ultimately better for women to be represented in politics and in public life than not.

“Women’s suffrage and later representation in parliament brought changes in societies where they fought hard for them,” she says. “And it came as a result of a strong background of awareness.”K

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.