The World

Political Tango, Women in the Lead
Published: November 4, 2007 - NY Times

WOMAN OF POWER Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina. She is the most prominent of a wave of women gaining office in Latin America. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


BUENOS AIRES – THE Spanish term equidad de género, or gender equity, gained new meaning last week when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner glided through the glass ceiling in Argentina and became the first woman to be democratically elected president in the nation’s history.

(right) OUTSIDERS NO MORE Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Evo Morales of Bolivia are among the leaders who don’t fit the old models. Photos: Juan Mabromata/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, left; David Mercado/Reuters

Even with the boost she got from the successful presidency of her husband, Néstor Kirchner, Mrs. Kirchner’s ascent from senator and first lady to leader of this country of 40 million people should hardly have come as a surprise. Over the last decade Argentina has been at the forefront of a wave of Latin American women gaining powerful positions in their governments.

Last year Chileans elected Michelle Bachelet South America’s first female president, while Portia Simpson-Miller was elected the first female prime minister of Jamaica. Lourdes Flores came within a percentage point last year of breaking the gender barrier in Peru when she lost to the eventual president, Alan Garcia, in the first round of voting there.

Women in Latin America are rising to top positions at a time when voters across the region are searching for fresh faces to chart new economic and political models. For a region still trying to establish stable democracies after decades of dictatorship and financial crisis, more women are emerging as options for voters eager to replace the traditional politicians who have failed them time and again.

“Women are being elected as a result of the desperate search for renewal of the political elite,” said Marta Lagos, executive director of Latin Barometer, a polling firm based in Santiago, Chile. “They are not well-known as great leaders, and unfortunately, they are not rising to power due to their own merit but because they break with the traditional scheme of political leaders.”

That was less true with Mrs. Kirchner, who was chosen in large part to ensure a continuation of her husband’s policies. But it was certainly the case with Ms. Bachelet, a former Chilean exile and political prisoner who promised changes that included more citizen participation.

Still, their rise to power has underscored the fact that being a woman in Latin America is becoming less of a detriment to achieving higher office. Some analysts see the recent success of women as part of a wider flowering of the political landscape to nontraditional groups that until recently would have been unelectable. Evo Morales in Bolivia, Alejandro Toledo in Peru and even Hugo Chávez in Venezuela have all prevailed over the last decade despite being darker-skinned figures who lacked the educational pedigree of their traditional white rivals. Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former auto worker with a sixth-grade education, has also shown how wide-open politics have become in this region.

“The emergence of what were previously outsiders signals the breakdown of traditional political structures” in the region, said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a political consultancy in Washington.

As the political walls have fallen, women are filling more positions, benefiting from aggressive gender quotas and from the perception that they are less susceptible to corruption. The candidacy of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has also given hope to women in the region, analysts said, reinforcing the trend.

In Argentina, Mrs. Kirchner, who describes Mrs. Clinton as her idol, has been compared to her. But even as Mrs. Kirchner has looked north for inspiration, there are parts of Latin America that have been more successful than the United States in achieving gender equity. Women made up 39 percent of the legislatures in both Argentina and Costa Rica last year, while they accounted for only 16 percent of Congressional seats in the United States, according to the Inter-American Dialogue. And Mrs. Clinton’s current run notwithstanding, America has yet to elect a female president.

Gender quotas have clearly made a difference. In 1991, just eight years after emerging from a military dictatorship, Argentina was the first country in Latin America to institute a gender quota law in its lower house. Every third name offered on all party ballots must be a woman. In 2001 a similar law was imposed on the senate.

A dozen countries in the region followed Argentina’s lead and passed similar laws. In Ecuador, the percentage of women in the legislature rose to 25 percent from 15 percent with the 2006 election; in Honduras, the figure increased to 23 percent from 5.5 percent after the 2005 election.

Experience in other parts of government has also paved the way for women. Nine of Chile’s 22 cabinet members are women, thanks to Ms. Bachelet, who previously served as defense minister and health minister.

The gender issue, however, was hardly present in the run-up to Argentina’s election, in which the top two vote-getters were women. Mrs. Kirchner barely mentioned the subject until election night, when she said she felt “an enormous responsibility to her gender.”

Many female voters reacted with quizzical stares when asked whether gender was a factor in their decision. “It is less important to me that she is a woman than it is that she steps out of the shadow of her husband,” said Nora Robles, 58, a housewife in Lugano, a working-class town outside of Buenos Aires.

Some polls have suggested that voters see women as less corrupt because they are often political neophytes — a reaction, almost certainly, to the rampant corruption that marked the male-dominated authoritarian regimes of the past. But recently some of the more sensational political scandals have involved women. In June, for example, Argentine fire inspectors found $64,000 in cash stashed in a bathroom of the government offices of Felisa Miceli, the economy minister at the time.

For all their gains, though, female leaders are susceptible to the same political hazards of any leader — recrimination, backlash and harsh reactions to failed policies. Ms. Bachelet has struggled in her first year, with a popularity rating among the lowest for any Latin American leader. A few weeks ago she lashed out at critics, accusing them of trying to commit “political femicide.”

After Mrs. Kirchner’s election last week, however, Ms. Bachelet seemed undaunted by the recent challenges. “The integration of women in leadership roles,” she said, “is here to stay.”

Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile.