The system of pre-election contesting for party nomination - adopted by both the ruling and opposition parties in preparation for the upcoming local elections on the pretext of establishing grassroots democracy - is becoming a stumbling block to the political empowerment of women.
Four candidates for municipal heads, 20 candidates for local council seats. That is the total number of women candidates who won their parties' nominations to run in the local elections.
The number of women who contested for party nominations stood at 37 for the New Millennium Democratic Party (11 municipal heads and 26 councilors) and 38 for the Grand National Party (9 municipal heads and 29 councilors), but as of May 13, 70% of them lost the contest in the NMDP and 65% in the GNP, meaning that two-thirds of the women hopefuls are already out of the race.
At the last local elections in 1998, there were eight women candidates who ran for municipal head offices (although none of them were elected), and some 37 who ran for seats in the local governments. Considering the four-year-old record, this year's performance is quite a letdown.
Why such a poor interim record for women's political empowerment despite expectations that ran high since the beginning of the year?
In fact, as late as the beginning of this year, the women groups were still busy anticipating how many women they could get into the municipal head offices and local governments. Hopes had been raised by the tangible victory of the 30% quota for women nominees in the local elections.
But an ambush sprung from the least expected corner. What stumbled the women heading for political careers was none other than the supposedly democratic, upward nomination system of contesting within the party for nominations. All the women candidates who ran for party nomination said "winning a nomination contest powered by money and organizational strength is more difficult than pushing a camel through the eye of a needle."
Admittedly, the primary polling system initiated by the NMDP in nominating its presidential candidate did win the approval and sensational response of the public, but for women with little experience as party members, the system only served to hamper their entry into politics.
When a woman candidate competes against a fellow male party member in garnering party representatives' votes for nomination, she faces much greater challenges than her male counterpart. The representatives who have the vote seldom act independently; the head of the party regional branch often throws his weight around to make sure that the votes go to the candidate he supports, making things quite difficult for the woman candidate to win party nomination.
The nomination contest may appear to be a fair and free voting system, but in reality, it is either used by the heads of party branches to influence party members' votes or used as a means to prime the ground for a "premeditated" nominee. In other words, the system usually functions as a "legitimate" means of excluding women from party politics.
Kim Won Hong of the Korean Women's Development Institute reports, "The 'recommendation of 50% women's quota for local government seats and 30% women's quota for regional party branch nominations' recently included in the Political Party Act is a commendable effort, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to democratization within the party." Men head most of the regional party branches and party members are still disinclined to favor women candidates. As such, many women nominee-hopefuls never even make it to the finals. Kim points out, "The central parties are definitely at fault for having failed to guard against such possibilities."