"The dearth of women in local autonomous governments" is hardly an exaggeration.
The last local elections held on June 4 1998 produced a total of 4,180 local legislators, of which only 97, or a paltry 2.3%, were women. This is a mere 0.1% increase from the 1995 elections, in which women accounted for 2.2% of the local assemblies.
Women take up 5.9% (41) of the total number of lawmakers in the cosmopolitan cities, and only 2.3% (14) of those in the districts. There is not even one woman lawmaker in North Chungcheong province. Women are even rarer at the grassroots level, accounting for only 1.6% (56) of the total. None of the heads of local governments were women until the by-elections in 1999 produced one woman head of local government.
Considering the growing number of women party members and women voters, women are definitely under-represented at the local level.
Local election campaigns do not require as much money or manpower as general election campaigns, which should give women a relative advantage. But reality shows otherwise.
For women to run for local elections, they have to be nominated by their parties. But women usually lose out to men in the bid for party nominations. Even at the grassroots level, where party nominations are not mandatory, parties still make unofficial nominations and back only their nominees, making it difficult for an independent woman candidate to make it on her own.
The Political Party Act was revised last year to allocate 30% of National and Local Assembly candidacies to women, but only the New Millennium Democratic Party honored this in the last General Elections. With neither sanctions nor incentives, it is doubtful that political parties will obey rules in next year's local elections.
Cho Hyun Oak, representative of the Democratic Alliance for Women's Political Empowerment says, "Local assemblies are in charge of the everyday lives of residents, making it possible for Korean politics to change from a centralized power struggle to democratic politics." She also called for greater representation for women at the local level, saying that the ratio of women should reach at least 50%.
Women groups predict that the 2002 local elections will open a new chapter in women's politics. They are determined to show women's power as never before.
Lee Chun Ho, president of the Korea Women Voters' Federation says, "When it comes to local politics, women are more knowledgeable than men, with men frequently asking their wives which candidate they should vote for. Women candidates have a good chance of winning once they are in the race." Member groups of the Federation have been conducting educational programs to enhance the capacity of would-be woman candidates.
The Federation also plans to demand that each party allocate 50% of its local election nominations and 30% of its constituency candidacies to women. The Federation's goal is to put 1,000 woman candidates in the race with the blessing of women groups and political parties.
There are still numerous hurdles to cross if women are to make marked progress in the 2002 local elections. The first hurdle would be getting parties to promise to abide by allocation rules and getting them to keep that promise.