Dialogue 5: Elections: What do they mean for our movements?
Elections are controversial among activists. Are they a path for people power? A way to mobilize the grassroots and advance our agendas? Or do they coopt our issues? Divert our energy? Are they a necessary evil or an essential part of our strategies?
At the heart of the uneasy relationship between movements and elections is the question: are elections a way we can contest for power and voice? Rarely do we get a chance to discuss this across borders, so for dialogue #5, we are bringing together eight women from different countries to share their insights and perspectives.
Elections are a contested subject. In many countries, elections have both succeeded and failed to translate into real change for people. In some contexts, elections come with increased backlash and repression. Still, elections are extremely consequential for our lives. While we cannot rely on them alone to bring about real change, they can present a critical moment for communities to organize around shared priorities, and for movements to put forward agendas for change and mobilize supporters.
Our world is in crisis and this rapidly changing context calls for strong, grounded, unified, and strategically savvy organizing. We need a sharper analysis of what we are up against, where the openings are, and how we can be more effective and safer as we organize for a better future. Coming together allows us to learn from one another, so we can better see and seize opportunities and strengthen our shared work for a just future.
The Uneasy Relationship Between Women, Movements and Elections
The question has long plagued grassroots movements: What to do about elections?
It’s an especially thorny issue for women activists and feminist movements. Even when around the world an increasing number of women run for and are elected to office, elections operate by patriarchal rules, structures and practices that often work against women. Historically, movements have viewed elections very differently–as a critical lever of power and a way to advance social change, or conversely, as a diversion of political energy and a risk for cooptation. Some have focused on electing specific candidates, at times from within movements, while others have approached elections as moments in which to strategically mobilize communities around issues and demands.
On the eve of the presidential election in the United States, JASS and our regional partner organizations hosted a virtual event to address these debates from a feminist movement perspective head-on. We assembled an extraordinary panel of eight women from Zimbabwe, Honduras, Myanmar, Guatemala, South Africa, the United States and Indonesia to compare thoughts and experiences on using elections for feminist movement building or, conversely, on the decision not to participate.
All the participants agreed that if and how elections can advance our movement goals, including gender justice, indigenous rights, racial and economic justice, environmental and land protection, ending corruption, and eliminating violence and impunity, depends on the context. Local, state and national elections can present an opportunity to strengthen our organizations and our demands, but the process–and the results, win or lose- can also divide and weaken movements. How do we determine the conditions that justify investing our hopes, resources and energy into elections? When and how can elections be a tool for our movements to effectively contest power?
Out of the wealth of experience, the diversity of contexts and the differing perspectives, some critical guidelines emerged:
Not the “be-all, end-all”: Recognize the limitations of what we can achieve through elections
Everjoice Win, Zimbabwean professor of women’s rights, director of programs for ActionAid, and longtime advisor with JASS, began by placing elections in the broader political dimension.
“Elections are an important, small–and I emphasize that–part of democratic process. They are only a moment, a moment in which we as women, as feminists, can choose the leaders that we want, can choose the governing system that we want, can put our issues on the agenda.” She stated that the problem arises when elections come to be seen “as the be-all, end-all of democracy.”
Her view was echoed by many of the women on the panel and in the virtual audience.
Zukiswa White, a pan-African feminist organizer from South Africa, emphasized that electoral participation can never fully encompass the movement’s visions for change, especially for marginalized groups including indigenous and native peoples, the poor and working class, lesbian and trans women, and others.
“Our visions for ourselves and our communities are so much bigger and more urgent than what big men in parliament can deliver for us. Even as we engage and organize, we have to be completely honest about how far the value and benefits of elections can take us,” she stated.
She added that these larger visions are tied to concrete issues such as land justice that pit movements against the powers-that-be that control the system. “Only a people in their power can make choices and when you are living under domination, you are engaged in struggle to negotiate for that power. So, elections become a site of negotiations.”
To properly understand elections as a path to build movements also means recognizing that the electoral process is not just the win-or-lose that happens on voting day. Several women pointed out that there is a before, during and after, which offer distinct organizing opportunities and risks. The before can include months or even years before, as grassroots women candidates are selected and prepared, communities define demands and visions, groups discuss civic responsibility and their relation to the state. This phase emphasizes popular and political education, often only loosely related to the electoral process itself. In Zimbabwe, for example, diverse women’s groups developed a manifesto for candidates called “What Women Want” that became an organizing platform before and after the election to bring attention to their shared demands.
“For me, what really matters more is what happens before the elections and more importantly what we want to see and expect to see as women after the elections… that’s when we should put up the pressure much more to say, ‘This is what you promised, these are the issues that we put on the agenda, and this is what we’d now like to see,” Win noted
Mi Kun Chan Non, co-founder of the Mon Women’s Network of Myanmar, stated that elections are important for participation in establishing laws and policies, but must be seen in the broader time frame, which runs from preparing movement women for government and “pushing governments and stakeholders to include more women”, to drawing up an action plan for the hard work of policymaking
Speakers from various parts of the world warned that the corrupt patriarchal system sees women’s active involvement in the political sphere as a feminist incursion on its turf. It will fight back every step of the way, including after women win office. Sandra Moran, Guatemalan lesbian-feminist, movement leader and former Congressional representative, stated that “the system does everything possible to make you fail” to thwart the example of successful opposition. Gabriela Lemus of Mi Familia Vota, an organization dedicated to building Latino political power in the U.S., added that the parties, even one’s own, also often push back. “There is always a tension between movements, feminist or progressive movements, and parties that are always more neoliberal.”
Most panelists reported that their countries have quotas for women candidates, but Chan Non said that Myanmar isn’t close to reaching the quota of 30% and warned that quotas are not a guarantee that the party will reflect women’s perspectives. Her organizations work on getting women out to vote and promoting women candidates with the hope of incorporating women’s demands and needs in government, especially now, at a critical point of the peace and rebuilding process.
Cultural factors also limit women’s participations even when there are limited political openings. Niken Lestari, coordinator of FAMM– the Young Indonesian Women Activists’ Forum, with members in thirty provinces–noted that in Indonesia, campaigns to more fully involve women in voting and office-holding suffered setbacks when women returned home from workshops to face pressures to vote according to clan or family dictates, to sell their vote, or not to go to the polls at all.
Another common limitation is that when women’s movements candidates win, they often–whether pressured or enticed–lose their commitments to the movements that elected them. These capitulations to the system once in formal power highlight what Gilda Rivera, director of the Center for Women’s Rights in Honduras, calls the need to maintain a “feminist ethic” when participating in electoral processes and government.
Possible gains from elections are vulnerable to all these factors: pushback, cooptation, false expectations, fraud and simply losing. But perhaps the biggest limitation, and the recurring contradiction in the discussion on whether or not to participate, is the structural inequality and unfairness of the electoral process itself.
“We keep having faith in a system that is so rigged from the start, that is not designed to incorporate the voices, the rights and the interests of women in terms of redistribution of resources and power, in terms of public participation in the democratic process itself, and in terms of the outcomes we expect to see on a daily basis in our lives,” Win said. The challenge at hand is how to fully recognize the structural inequities and still advance in the areas where it’s possible.
Jessica Byrd of the Electoral Justice Project and Movement for Black Lives has made elections the focus of her political activity, but she expressed no illusions regarding how far movements can use elections to change relations of power in the United States. “Our elections are rigged, we know that we have not attained democracy. We are still very much inside of a Reconstruction Era where black people’s citizenship is in question,” she said.
Jessica recounted her experience with the election stolen from Black woman gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and cited Hillary Clinton’s victory in the popular vote and reversal in the Electoral College to argue that the United States–often held up as the model of representative democracy–has deep injustices built in. In that context, a primary motivation for their decision to participate in the 2020 elections is defensive–the risk posed by the possible re-election of Donald Trump and company. “Our largest question is: If white nationalism is gaining traction in our political parties, what is our role?” she asked rhetorically.
“Our role is to tell the truth. Our role is to hold two truths, a politics of multiple truths: elections are just a tactic, and we have a clear opposition inside the U.S. that is working to create authoritarian, white nationalist political power that is pushing back against social movements, like the Movement for Black Lives, like the women’s movement, like queer movements in the U.S., and we have a role and responsibility in protecting our people from that threat.”
Limitations can be a challenge or a deal-breaker. What can be achieved in any given context depends on the extent of authoritarian control over elections, the strength and focus of movement organizing, and the existence of openings we can use to advance our movement goals.
Context and conditions matter: We have to determine what’s possible
A consensus quickly formed that to participate successfully in the electoral process requires evaluating the real possibilities for gains, rather than the promises of democracy or the allure of formal power.
Rivera, a leader in Honduran popular and feminist movements for more than 40 years, said that evaluating the context means taking a close look “at where we are at that moment in the country to see if there are democratic channels that we can identify as women, if there are opportunities for challenging power, or cracks where we can insert a feminist agenda.”
Moran noted the need for practical evaluations of power. “This is the question—are we going to change the correlation of forces or not? Can we really do it? Sometimes we jump in without enough power behind us.”
Gilda concluded that Honduras, a country that endured a coup d’état in 2009 without restoration of the constitutional order and the 2017 fraudulent re-election of an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian president, does not currently present positive conditions for women’s movements to participate in elections.
“In the case of Honduras, I think it’s very difficult as a feminist women’s movement to advance a feminist agenda in the next years, given the current legal and political framework. As long as we live in these democracies that are extremely weak, but strong in guaranteeing the interests of powerful economic groups, the model of outright pillage, and the exploitation of common goods, it would be very difficult to elect candidates sympathetic to our causes.”
The panelists identified another crucial condition for electoral work as the ability to build and mobilize broad alliances to participate as a united front. Electoral alliances that don’t sacrifice principles make movements’ participation more viable, and create grassroots governing coalitions if they gain power. Alliances often stem from our own intersectionalities.
Chan Non noted that as a Mon woman, the fight for real representation is twofold. “I am an ethnic woman in Myanmar so when we talk about the movement, we have to talk about two movements,” she said, both of which are striving for fair representation in government. She mentioned the added hardship of the pandemic as Myanmar prepares for its November 2020 elections. “We work so that more people come out to vote and more women, but because of the pandemic, the situation has changed. So, people are worried, but we are still pushing for the vote for women and for ethnic representatives in parliament for the building of Myanmar”.
The probability of success, the degree of real democratic opening, the power of the forces against you, and the power and capacity of movements are critical conditions for participation, according to all the women movement leaders. Others include the opportunity for popular education and grassroots mobilization around elections, and the ability to build strong and broad, like-minded alliances to advance political agendas.
If these conditions do not exist or cannot be created, several panelists warned that electoral participation can lead to division, repression and draining of energy and resources for our movements.
Identify where and how you can have the most impact now, and in the future
Although attention tends to focus on national elections, many women’s organizations choose to concentrate on state, province or local elections. This, too, is a decision based on the particular context. In Indonesia, Lestari pointed out that most feminist movement efforts concentrate on the local level, where women organized in communities can have more influence and impact on decisions that affect their daily lives.
“We as activists can choose our level of advocacy, based on our capacities, because not all activism is at the national level. Elections at the village and district levels are just as important, and essential to our grassroots political movement,” she said. “For us, the village elections are the most important area to change the narrative on power and feminist leadership, so that’s important for grassroots movements.”
FAMM’s work centers on political education and organizing with young women to challenge the limited concepts of women’s role and power in the family and society. Supporting community members to become elected leaders is one tool of empowerment for the individual and the organization, Lestari noted, adding that village elections offer a door to participating in shaping local policies and budgets.
On the other hand, sometimes the imperative to participate in electoral processes arises from the harm that a negative result could cause to our communities and movements. This U.S. election shifted the calculus for many grassroots organizers. Byrd and Lemus’ organizations focus on the US 2020 presidential elections due to the devastating impact another Trump presidency would have for women and Black, Latinx and LGBTQ communities.
In the end, the goal is to weigh options and scenarios to choose the optimal arena and path for participation, based on how it helps build your movement and moves it toward collective goals and visions.
Finally, and most importantly, movements matter
The international discussion on women’s movements and elections transcended the simplistic formulation ‘elections, yes or no?’, which often ignores the finer nuances of a movement strategy that considers elections a tactic, and not the end goal.
Moran, who was elected to the Guatemalan Congress after running for office at the urging of the grassroots women’s movement, stated that representative democracy should matter to women’s movements because it’s where laws and policies are made.
“We have to contest power in all arenas. As movements, we have to contest power and we need to do it in different ways, from different fronts and with a diversity of actions,” she said. “It [elections for public office] forms part of a larger strategy. As long as we’re building popular power, if we put our demands and proposals on the table, and we generate movement around candidacies, that allows us to continue to build that power. The people who participate as candidates have the opportunity to amplify the demands and voices of the movements.”
Chan Non emphasized maintaining the link between elected officials and the base. “I think the election is important to prove and show that our movement can come forward, and I believe that after that, those women representatives can really represent the rights of women and people from the ground.”
Based on her organizing in several African countries, White said that what’s critical is to hold fast to the fundamental goals and visions, and avoid relinquishing movement autonomy to electoral processes. “Ours must be about building community resilience… so that our people can rely less on mechanisms that are endorsed by the very state that forms part of this globalist, imperialist power setup that keeps us in this constant state of ‘negotiation frustration’ and limits our vision for a shared, collective and liberated future. Ours is to move away from the idea that only cosmetic changes, which is what elections deliver, are possible, but rather to build collective and communal resilience and capacity for revolution.”
She added, “Democracy means shared and collective power to the people. So, our relationship with elections must include a commitment to making this shared and collective power real and meaningful.”
The panelists echoed a single message on this point–sticking to the larger goals, visions and principles of the movements is the only way in which electoral participation makes sense. As a leader in the largest social movement in U.S. history, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), Jessica Byrd stated, “The Black movement is doing everything possible to say who we are and what is required for our governance here. Our participation in elections is not a concession on that. We are abolitionists—we believe that Black people, all people, should not be in cages. We believe that capitalism is one of the greatest barriers to our full civic participation, and black queer feminism is a politic that invites us into the expansiveness of our lives. Voting does not concede any of that, but what it does, it allows us to move toward the fullness of that truth.”
She concluded, “The north star for the MBL is governance; it is co-governance with movements, where the movement is setting the terms of debate, not politicians”.
The panel discussion, entitled “Elections: What do they mean for our movements?” was the fifth in the JASS series “Women Transforming a World in Crisis”. The full 1.5-hour discussion is available here: https://www.facebook.com/JASS4justice/videos/337769947670744
Photo caption below: The Cuban-Mexican musician, Leiden, opened the conversation with a greeting and song on standing up to violence against women, to reaffirm our grounding in feminist movements and the role of music in struggle.
Everjoice Win, Zimbabwe
EJ, (as she is popularly known), has been active in feminist and social justice movements in her country, the African continent and globally. She started her development career with Women’s Action Group, where she designed and implemented popular education and community-based development programs as well as national policy advocacy campaigns. EJ is one of the founders of the Zimbabwe National Constitutional Assembly and has worked in several organizations like the Pan-African Women in Law and Development in Africa, (WiLDAF). There, EJ worked collectively with other feminists, transforming and shaping the women’s human rights landscape across some 24+ African countries. This includes the passing of new laws and policies on domestic violence, inheritance as well as shifting societal norms and values. Everjoice was part of the first Feminist Leadership Institute held at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, which conceptualized the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. EJ also served as ActionAid’s International’s Global head of Women’s Rights between 2002 and 2011, as well as Oxfam-Canada’s Associate Country Director in Zimbabwe. Since 2014, Everjoice has been ActionAid International’s Director for Programs and Global Engagement. In this role she leads and oversees the organization’s programs, advocacy, and campaigns. Everjoice is a graduate from the University of Zimbabwe. In May 2020 Everjoice was appointed as Professor of Practice-Women’s Rights, by the School of Oriental and African Studies, (SOAS), at the University of London. Everjoice contributes as an advisor to feminist organizations, and movements, including the African Feminist Forum and Just Associates. She co-founded and served on the Boards and leadership of several civil society and women’s rights organizations in different parts of the world. A writer, blogger, and active social media influencer, EJ contributes to various print and online publications.
Zukiswa White, South Africa
Zukiswa White is a pan-Africanist and feminist thinker and organizer. She has collaborated on several movements and community-led interventions to address education inequality, gender and sexuality, and land and race justice. To survive capitalism, she works as an independent social justice consultant and communications strategist. Zukiswa presently organizes as a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress, Azanian Women’s Collective, and Shayisfuba. She is committed to organizing in ways that prioritize building community resilience and self-determining African communities who rely less on interventions of the state and more on our collective power to transform and redefine them for ourselves.
Sandra Morán, Guatemala
Sandra Morán, lesbian, revolutionary, feminist, militant and defender of women’s rights, sexual diversity, Indigenous Peoples, and youth. Artist, political scientist, and popular educator. She has founded and has belonged to several grassroots women’s organizations; and she co-founded the Alianza Política Mujeres (Women’s Political Alliance) in 1994, which contributed to visibilizing women’s proposals in the Peace Accords. After the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, she has been part of the Women’s Forum Organizing Committee, a nation-wide body organized to ensure the fulfillment of the 28 commitments made to women in the Peace Accords. She was a member of the World March of Women’s International Committee between 2011-2015. From 2016 to January 2020, she was a Representative to the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala, being the first lesbian elected for that post in the history of Guatemala. Currently, she is coordinating the construction of an International Feminist Organizing School, a proposal driven by a coalition of which GGJ is part. This is a political education proposal for propelling the Feminist Economy as an alternative model in which we place the sustainability of life at the center of our actions and struggles. In Guatemala, she has been organizing the Movement of Women with Constitutional Power to propose the elements for a New Constitution from the perspective of women, Indigenous Peoples, and sexual diversity.
Gilda Rivera, Honduras
Gilda María Rivera Sierra es hondureña, feminista, de 64 años de edad. Siendo muy joven se organizó en movimientos estudiantiles universitarios con la convicción de la necesidad de que la universidad debe estar comprometida con los intereses de los sectores en situación de mayor vulnerabilidad en el país. Gilda fue desaparecida política en el año 1982. A finales de ese año se fue a vivir a México, regresando a Honduras recién en el año 1989. En México nació su interés por los movimientos de mujeres y los feminismos. Regresa a Honduras decidida a trabajar con mujeres, y a inicios de la década de los noventa forma parte del grupo fundador del Centro de Derechos de Mujeres (CDM). Gilda ha sido parte de la formación de otras articulaciones del movimiento social y popular, tanto en Honduras como en Mesoamérica. Actualmente, Gilda es Coordinadora Ejecutiva del CDM.
Mi Kun Chan Non, Myanmar
Mi Kun Chan Non is one of the founders of the Mon Women’s Network, Director of the Women’s Empowerment and Community Development Programme of Mon Women’s Organisation (MWO), and its current Chair of MWO. For more than 15 years she has worked as an activist and advocate for gender justice, leading initiatives on women’s leadership, political participation and inclusive security. Currently, she strongly engages with advocating on women participation in the peace process. Her expertise is sought by embassies and international organizations, and she contributes with her knowledge as panel member and speaker on women and development in different conferences and seminars. She is actively involved as a volunteer for different CBOs and CSOs in Mon State. Mi Kun Chan Non holds an M.A in Development Study from Kimmage Development Study Centre in Ireland. In 2012 Mi Kun Chan Non served as one of the very few observers on peace talks between Burmese Government and New Mon State Party. Mi Kun Chan Non currently serves as Steering Committee at AGIPP (Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process) on behalf of Mon Women Network (MWN). She was awarded the N Peace Award in 2014 for the Untold Story category.
Niken Lestari, Indonesia
Niken Lestari developed her capacity in leadership and community organizing for over 14 years. Niken has a strong passion for feminist leadership, open-source software, and community literacy as part of the social justice movement. She comes from a multi-discipline background of library science, women’s studies, and rural advisory service. She is now working at FAMM Indonesia (Young Indonesian Women Activist Forum) as executive coordinator. She is planning to create a library that collects and produces poetry books in Indonesia language and English as part of the bibliotherapy for mental health care. As a 41-year old Aries, she loves the beach and sands.
Jessica Byrd – M4BL Electoral Justice Project, USA
Jessica Byrd is a Black queer feminist who founded founded Three Point Strategies in 2015 to provide a home for electoral strategy in the United States that centers racial justice and is transformational rather than transactional. Jessica is a nationally renowned political strategist known for her unapologetically people-powered approach to campaign strategy and is a relentless capacity builder for the independent Black Political Ecosystem. She has worked on campaigns in 43 states, trained hundreds of activists and elected leaders and is one of the architects of the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project. She made history while serving as a chief strategist for Black women US Senate Candidates, Congresswomen, Mayors of major metropolitan cities, and serving as the Chief of Staff to Georgia Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Jessica recently spearheaded the planning and execution of the Black National Convention for the Movement for Black Lives and is committed fully to utilizing elections as a tactic to build power and policy in defense and investment in Black lives.
Gabriela Lemus – Mi Familia Vota, USA
Gabriela Lemus is the Founding Partner and CEO of Revolution Strategy, a management and communications strategy consultancy. Prior to Revolution Strategy US, she was the President of Progressive Congress and adviser to the co-Chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Raul Grijalva and Rep. Keith Ellison. As an Obama Administration appointee, she served as Senior Advisor and Director of Public Engagement for Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, and was appointed by Mayor Vince Gray to serve as a Trustee of the University of the District of Columbia – an HBCU. Dr. Lemus is a passionate advocate for justice – social, economic, environmental, gender – whose career spans more than 15 years in senior strategic leadership roles in congressional and government affairs, non-profit management, policy advocacy and community/civic-engagement. She has built and managed non-profits, has a wide range of experience in building multi-racial coalitions and advocacy campaigns, advancing public policy and civic engagement. She is an innovator in voter engagement and civic participation for the Latino community. Gabriela has a PhD from the University of Miami, where she studied international political economy and political theory and wrote her dissertation on the drugs war and the US-Mexico border, implications for bilateral relations. She serves on numerous boards. She is the President of the Mi Familia Vota Education Fund (MFVEF), co-Chair of the Center for Common Ground, sits on the boards of American Family Voices (AFV), Netroots Nation, where she serves as the Chair of the Development Committee and the National Institute for Reproductive Health, where she serves as the Chair of the Audit Committee. Certified Climate Reality Leadership Trainer.