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Does society need quotas?

Ruth Dreifuss (on right) was in the minority in politics as a leftwing Jewish woman, although it did not stop her becoming Swiss president Keystone

Opinions abound on the rights and wrongs of quota systems. According to Swiss expert Nenad Stojanović, quotas can improve the plight of under-represented populations, but an efficient system must remain flexible.

This content was published on December 11, 2013 - 11:00

Whether it is women in the highest spheres of business or in politics, or representing ethnic or linguistic minorities, quotas can rarely be enforced without having both positive and negative consequences.

In his recent work Dialogue on quotas: rethinking representation in a multicultural democracy, Nenad Stojanovic makes the case for flexible solutions. In Switzerland the different linguistic groups are represented according to the sizes of their population in parliament. Is that a quota?

Nenad Stojanović: Yes, but in the largest sense of the term. Strictly speaking, a quota in parliament would consist of reserving a certain number of seats for a linguistic minority. In Switzerland no linguistic group has a guaranteed number of seats just because of their language.

Every district –  in Switzerland that means every canton – has a certain number of seats. If Ticino's inhabitants have eight seats in the lower house and two in the higher, it's because they come from a canton that has the right to that many seats, not because they are Italian speakers.

So here we have already got into the dilemma of the quota solution. Formal and rigid quotas have many disadvantages and so you have to find indirect mechanisms. That's what the cantons are in this case. They fix a certain rule, but without bringing language into it.

The author

Originally from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nenad Stojanovic has lived in Switzerland since 1992.

He studied political sciences in Geneva, Paris, London, Montreal and Zurich, where he got his PhD.

After having worked as a journalist and also as a civil servant, he turned to scientific research in 2004, working in Aarau's Centre for Democracy, but also lecturing in universities in Sarajevo, Fribourg, Zurich and Lausanne.

He's also a socialist politician in the Ticino cantonal parliament.

End of insertion What would be so terrible about assigning a certain number of seats to speakers of a particular language?

N. S. : If you did that, you'd quickly get into a complex conversation. Is a person really a French, German or an Italian-speaker? That happened already with bilingual politicians who stand for election to cabinet in the majority French-speaking canton of Fribourg. You end up having debates that are almost linguistically racist.

There is no formal rule about the make-up of the cabinet. But the idea of a wholly German-speaking government would be impossible to entertain. So there we have an informal quota, because there is no official requirement to represent Switzerland's linguistic make-up.

Keystone In many countries, women are under-represented in politics. How can that be changed if not with quotas?

N. S. : That is a trickier question as you cannot use the indirect mechanisms that I prefer for linguistic communities. It's obviously impossible to solve the issue of female representation via electoral districts.

But that doesn't mean that a quota represents the only solution. There are other ways. For example France has a law on parity that means that political parties must present the same number of men and women on their lists for election, and if not they face a fine. That's an incentive. So you have a wide choice but there is still freedom of vote. This measure has helped improve the situation in France.

Quotas in Switzerland.

There are a few places in Switzerland where quotas do exist, principally at the cantonal and communal level.

In Bern canton, which is mostly German-speaking, a few seats are formally set aside for the French-speaking minority in the canton government and parliament.

Another example dates from April 2013. Zurich city parliament passed a motion requiring 35% of city administration managers to be women. (Currently 17%)

On 6 November 2013, the Swiss government published directives on the representation of genders and linguistic communities – aimed at the management of around 20 businesses that are close to the government. By 2020 women will have to make up 30% of the management and it will also have to reflect the linguistic communities of Switzerland (German: 65.5%, French: 22.8%, Italian 8.4% and Romansh 0.6% )

Quotas don't just concern issues of gender and language. In September, parliamentarian Luc Barthassat put forward a motion to change the law on radio and television, to force radio stations to broadcast a minimum of 25% Swiss music.

End of insertion The idea of quotas makes you think of the US.

N. S. : That's wrong. There are no quotas in political life there. The very idea of a quota there is taboo.

In order to improve minority representation Americans prefer to intervene at an earlier stage – during education, via positive discrimination. Universities can give an advantage to certain historically underprivileged communities. But this policy is controversial. Most recently there has been a tendency to accept this positive discrimination if it is not too explicit.

France too is looking at this idea – by giving priority to young people coming from ZEPs [underprivileged zones that qualify for extra state support in education]. So in fact without calling it a quota, France is using this tool to improve the representation of ethnic minorities in elite French universities. Isn't this rather hypocritical?

N. S. : It's not hypocrisy, but an intelligent tool for attaining the required goal – that is a better representation of the whole of a larger society – whilst avoiding the perverse effects of a rigid quota system. What are these perverse effects?

N. S. : There is something problematic in the idea of representative democracy if you keep some seats aside for a certain category. We start out thinking that men cannot represent women, Catholics cannot represent Protestants, or German-speakers French-speakers. If you push this idea to the limit, then nobody can represent anyone else.

There is also a problem when it comes to individuals' freedom. Each citizen is defined by several things – a gender, a language, religion and mentality.  Picking out just one of these factors reduces a person's freedom to define themselves. So what is the best solution in your opinion?

N. S. : All paths should be explored – different electoral systems, federalism, candidate quotas  – in order to guarantee a certain balance in representation, but without resorting to quotas.

But if you really do have to use them – for example in order to put an end to a civil war by ensuring all parties have government representation – you have to be careful not to impose too rigid ways of delivering those results. Because once quotas have been put in place, they're difficult to change, even if the situation has.

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