A man’s world: Military rule in Thailand has strangled female representation in politics

Photo: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Since the 2014 coup, female political representation in Thailand has suffered. Why are women underrepresented in Thai politics? And can Thailand increase its female participation without comprising the quality of its democracy?

By Oliver Ward

Women hold 24% of global leadership roles in the private sector. In Thailand, they hold 37%. In Thai companies, women hold 40% of chief executive positions and 34% of chief financial officer positions.

In education, the country holds the top spot globally for female enrollment in higher education. More female students attend Thai universities than male students, providing the Thai workforce with a rich pool of talented, highly educated women ready to snap up the country’s top jobs.

But female faces are conspicuously absent from Thai politics. Prior to the 2019 elections, just 5% of the military-appointed legislature was female, placing Thailand 184th out of 194 nations in terms of female representation. In the 2019 election, just eight of the 68 prime ministerial candidates were female.

More females in elected office typically leads to increased legislative productivity, reduced corruption and higher levels of peace and stability. Thailand was also one of the first countries in Asia to grant women voting rights in 1932. So, why are females underrepresented in politics today? And can Thailand remedy the situation under its current political system?

The military’s political dominance excludes female candidates

Female representation in politics was making headway in the early 2000s. At the turn of the millennium, women held just 4.8% of parliamentary seats. This figure steadily rose over the following decade, peaking after the 2011 elections when 15.8% of the House of Representatives were female and Yingluck Shinawatra became Thailand’s first female prime minister.

In 2014, the Royal Thai Armed Forces led by General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha seized power in a coup d’état. The military filled the newly established National Legislative Assembly (NLA) with its allies. By directly tying military allegiance to political representation, women found themselves underrepresented in the national legislature. Any female in the NLA would first have to secure the approval and appointment of the male-dominated military. Unsurprisingly, the military awarded women just 3% of the seats available.

2019 was not the return to democracy Thais had been hoping for

With 500 seats in the House of Representatives up for grabs, the 2019 general election could have been an opportunity for the Thai electorate to remedy the situation and vote more females into elected office. However, the military’s attempts to limit the opposition’s electoral influence disproportionately affected female candidates.

General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha.
Photo: Kremlin

“Several prominent female MPs were banned by the military junta from standing for election,” Yoshinori Nishizaki, associate professor in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS) told ASEAN Today.

The Thai Raksa Chart Party was also disqualified from the election after it attempted to nominate Princess Ubolratana Mahidol as a candidate for prime minister. “Many female candidates who belonged to this party and had won previous elections were not able to take part in the election,” Nishizaki added.

How can Thailand increase female participation in politics without compromising the quality of its democracy?

In 2003, Indonesia’s female representation in the national legislative assembly sat at just 7%. In an attempt to address the gender imbalance, the government introduced a quota which required women to comprise at least 30% of all parliamentary candidates.

The quota ensured that in the subsequent elections more females were on the ballot, and subsequently entered office. In Indonesia’s 2019 elections, around 40% of candidates were female.

The introduction of quotas similar to those introduced in Indonesia has been hotly debated in Thailand. Both the Future Forward and Pheu Thai parties have rejected the idea, suggesting that there is no place for quotas in democratic elections.

“If introduced, the gender quota would probably further increase the number of Thai women in politics, but I’m rather skeptical that it would help enhance the quality of politics,” Nishizaki said, “the quota system would only encourage more women from well-connected wealthy families to seek office, while talented and capable women without such family backgrounds would continue to find it difficult to enter politics.”

A man’s world: Election posters display candidates ahead of the 2019 election in Koh Samui.
Photo: Per Meistrup

This is certainly visible in Indonesia where competitive female candidates are often from elite backgrounds or married to powerful men. 46 female candidates in Indonesia’s elections were the wives, daughters, sisters or nieces of a male politician that was barred from running after reaching their term limit in office. The women, if elected, would likely be little more than puppets, with their male relatives pulling the strings of power.

The females that make it onto the ballot that are not from political dynasties are often registered at the last minute to meet the quota.

Thailand is also in a unique situation. Unlike Indonesia in 2003, Thai voters have already demonstrated that there is an increasing willingness to vote for female candidates, even without a quota. The best way to capitalise on this willingness and increase female political representation would, therefore, be to ensure a steady stream of capable and charismatic female candidates.

The parties themselves can ensure there are adequate training opportunities to prepare female candidates for campaigns. By training confident, natural leaders, female candidates will be able to effectively challenge the notion that politics is a man’s realm.

Improvements to the democratic process will also improve female representation

Many of the issues that restrict female representation are the same issues that hamper the Thai democratic process. The high cost of entry to politics means only those from rich families can currently enter the political system, keeping many of Thailand’s educated and capable females from running for political office.

The military’s grip on power and persecution of opposition parties also disproportionately affects female candidates. The weaker the link between the military and government becomes, the more women will be able to break into the political system.

The fight for female representation in Thailand is inseparable from the fight for to democracy. Many of the barriers female candidates face are the same barriers that obstruct free and fair elections. Without the dismantling of these barriers, the military will keep the government as a boy’s club reserved for the wealthy elites and their allies.