Is the expected surge in far-right vote pushing women to be more politically active?

A little girl waits for her mother to vote, backdropped by voting booths with curtains depicting the European Union flag in Baleni, Romania, in 2019.
A little girl waits for her mother to vote, backdropped by voting booths with curtains depicting the European Union flag in Baleni, Romania, in 2019. Copyright Andreea Alexandru / Mediafax
Copyright Andreea Alexandru / Mediafax
By Ines Trindade Pereira
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This article was originally published in Portuguese

In an interview with Euronews, gender equality experts believe that the European institutions remain abstract elements in women's lives and a space fuelled by gender stereotypes.

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An increase in the representation of far-right parties in the European Parliament could become a reality in the next European elections.

According to an exclusive poll carried out by Ipsos for Euronews, the parties of the radical and Eurosceptic right could have an expected 30 more seats in the European Parliament, leading the polls in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria.

The representation of the far-right at a national level has also increased. In Portugal, the Chega party went from 12 to 50 MPs in the legislative elections on 10 March 2024.

This political trend could mean a change in women's rights, moving the European Union away from a feminist agenda.

At a national level, some governments in Europe have already passed laws that could put women in hostile situations. This is the case in Italy, which passed a law allowing anti-abortion groups access to women considering a voluntary termination of pregnancy.

Oxfam's "A Feminist Europe?" study states that "the growing backlash against gender equality across Europe can be seen internally through the growing electoral success and representation of far-right populist groups in countries such as Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands."

Cecilia Francisco Carcelén, one of the three authors of the study and a specialist in gender equality, guarantees: "The dismantling of women's rights is at the heart of what far-right movements are advocating."

In 2022, women accounted for 52 per cent of the population of EU member states, according to Eurostat. Will the increase in far-right votes force women to be more politically active in the 2024 European elections?

Eleonora del Vecchio, another of the study's co-authors and a gender equality researcher, believes that "women who feel threatened by the far right can become more involved in politics", but only if they still believe in institutions and democracy.

Voting for women

For a long time, the percentage of women who abstained from voting compared to men was very different. Although the gap in voting participation has been narrowing, especially since the 2014 European elections, with 45 per cent of men saying they would vote to 41 per cent of women, the Robert Schuman Foundation concludes that "women still feel less involved in European politics than men".

A study carried out by Eurobarometer in a post-European elections scenario in 2019 also revealed that women are more likely than men to explain that they didn't vote because they don't know much about the European Parliament or the European elections.

Carcelén reacts: "It's not surprising that many women feel disconnected from (male) politicians, especially when they don't address their daily needs as women, which results in public policies that don't take gender into account. It's a feedback loop fuelled by gender stereotypes."

Emma Rainey, another of the co-authors of the Oxfam study and a gender equality consultant, emphasises that "for many women, the institutions of the European Union remain irrelevant and abstract to their lives", especially after the pandemic when their quality of life decreased significantly and there was no concrete response "to eliminate the increased burden".

For the president of the NGO European Women's Lobby, Iliana Balabanova, one of the reasons for this indifference is the lack of representation on the political scene.

Currently, there is no data at European level on the different groups of women within this section.

We are different. We have different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different religions, different sexuality. But we are still very underrepresented.
Iliana Balabanova
President of European Women's Lobby

Balabanova adds: "And I have to say that of the 33 per cent of women in the European Parliament, we only have 17 MEPs from ethnic minorities, which means that a large group of us are poorly represented."

Women's political representation

Since Ursula von der Leyen was elected President of the European Commission in 2019, the number of female commissioners has risen from nine to 13 out of a total of 27 representatives, achieving the goal of gender equality in the college of Commissioners.

Roberta Metsola and Christine Lagarde are other female names in senior positions in the European institutions.

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However, the existence of female figures in top positions opens up debate as to whether this is enough to guarantee gender equality.

Rainey says that "there is no denying" the significant progress made in promoting gender equality since von der Leyen became President of the European Commission, but also points out that she is "very privileged" and that her reality is "very distant from the daily realities of most women".

Eleonora del Vecchio goes further: "a woman does not make an advocate of gender equality or a feminist."

"Roberta Metsola comes from Malta, a country where abortion is illegal except in cases where the pregnant woman's life is at risk. In a press release in 2015, the MEP and her Maltese colleagues declared that they were "categorically against abortion". It is well known that bodily autonomy is crucial for women's empowerment and that banning abortion has drastic consequences, especially for poor and migrant women," she adds.

However, regardless of their political ideology, women who decide to enter a political career have to face the greatest exposure to violence in recent years.

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The psychological, physical and online violence to which they are exposed can lead them to give up on politics.

A study of 2424 participants in 31 countries reveals that after permanent contact with this type of violence, 21 per cent of women in politics became less active in public debate, 12 per cent withdrew from public life and 9 per cent decided not to run again.

Marie-Colline Leroy, the current Belgian Secretary of State for Gender Equality, Opportunities and Diversity, admits that many attempts to delegitimise her proposals are based on the fact that she is a woman.

All the attacks that concern me are attacks that aim to try to delegitimize my words, discredit what I say, and always target my gender identity, on the fact that I am a woman. A lot of criticism, a lot of insults, remarks about the physical that aim always try to create an environment of fear, an environment that is destabilizing.
Marie-Colline Leroy
State Secretary for Gender Equality, Equal Opportunities and Diversity

However, this climate of fear leads Iliana Balabanova to demand: "We deserve to have our voice heard. We deserve to have our demands met. So we deserve our place both politically, culturally and economically and as human beings. This is what will truly mobilise us."

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