The ideal of equal representation for women in democratic governments around the globe sounds praiseworthy. But its implementation has little to do with "equality" or "democracy." Instead, it has become a policy of privilege and quota, driven by elite powers that disregard the wishes of "the people" in regions where it is applied. It is affirmative action applied to the political realm.

The Afghan Women's Summit for Democracy ended last Friday with a demand that women be included in the post-Taliban government, including its grand assembly, the loya jirga. The demand goes well beyond Afghanistan's pre-Taliban 1964 constitution that included universal suffrage and equal rights for women. Women voters generally prefer male candidates. Even in Western nations like the United States, the "ideal" of equal representation has not been achieved.

To ensure that women become government officials in sufficient numbers, organizations such as the United Nations and the Feminist Majority, an American group, are basically trying to rig the election. They're not trying to control the voting — just the nominations. In the 19th century, Boss Tweed — possibly the most corrupt politician America has produced — declared, "I don't care who does the electing just so long as I do the nominating."

This affirmative action "rigging" system is already in operation in Kosovo, where the parliament functions under a U.N.-mandated quota guaranteeing women will constitute close to a third of its members. Every third candidate in the 2001 election had to be a woman. The gender quota system was combined with a system of "proportional representation," which basically meant that seats were allocated in proportion to the votes each party received. Many European nations embrace a quota system in nominating candidates, but Kosovo "guarantees" a high election of women whether or not people would have voted for them otherwise. In the November 2001 election, 28 percent of offices went to women.

The system has stirred a backlash of criticism, including from Kosovo's women's movements. In response to the charge that rigging a "free" election gave only the appearance of propriety, Liz Hume, a legal adviser to OSCE — the U.N. organization that oversees elections in Kosovo — offered a strange defense. "You could say that they [elected women] are the pawns of their parties, but so are the men," a BBC News report quotes Hume as saying.

The appearance is clearly important as the United Nations wishes the system to spread. "Kosovo is blazing a trail, many democracies are lagging behind on this," Kosovo's U.N. administrator, Bernard Kouchner, has declared.

Indeed, the call for quota systems within government has been foreshadowed for some while on the United Nations' Web site. In the women's section of the site, Section Two of the Conference of Women Members of South Eastern European Parliaments — Women in Electoral Campaigns — is a call for a quota system along the lines used in Argentina, and now in Kosovo.

Cries for political quotas are becoming more common. In the West, quota-advocate feminists speak euphemistically of "including the voices of women in government." But the goal has shifted from giving women the vote on an equal footing with men to enforcing the presence of women in governmental bodies. According to their theory, the lack of female officials is the direct result of discrimination that must be rectified by government policy.

Those who argue for a political quota system to secure equality within a democratic process must answer two questions: What is your definition of "equality?" Of "democracy?"

Feminism is the belief that women and men should be treated as equals, but the definition of "equality" can differ widely. To individualist feminists, or ifeminists, equality means identical treatment under laws that protect person and property. It is an equality of rights, not of results. If women cast a ballot as men do, then women's political will has been actualized even if no females are elected.

Because gender feminism defines equality in socio-economic terms, it seeks to reorganize society to redistribute political, economic and cultural power from men to women. This equality of results, not rights, leads to legal privileges for women, such as mandatory placement on ballots.

In Europe, the term "affirmative action" is publicly applied to political representation. In America, the discussion usually occurs within gender feminism or academia. An example is the 1998 Harvard paper, "Women in Politics: The Quota System," by Mala Htun. Htun looks to Latin American countries like Argentina for inspiration. In a manner similar to Kosovo's, Argentina has dramatically increased the number of women "elected." The United Nations was instrumental there as well.

The second question for these advocates is, "What is your definition of 'democracy?'" The standard definition is "government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system."

Yet the "Boss Tweed" version of controlling nominations is designed to override the will of the people. Political elites — most prominently, the United Nations and gender feminists — want to dictate who can be a candidate specifically because the common people do not elect the "right" people in the proper ratio. This is profoundly anti-democratic.

A brief column, like this one, can only touch on an issue. But I offer a question that has haunted me during my research. Since when has North America started looking to Argentina for lessons on good government?

McElroy is the editor of Ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women(McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.