Thailand scores well when it comes to female leadership in the corporate realm, but this is not replicated in the political realm. While female representation is still low in Thai politics, it has been improving with every election - a promising sign of progress.
On May 25, women members of parliament (MPs) played an unprecedented role in the first working session of the lower chamber of Thailand’s parliament, whose purpose was to elect the House Speaker. The dramatic debate in which their role was so pronounced caused a delay in the voting process.
The 24 March polls saw 81 women, out of 500 MPs in all, elected to parliament. They make up approximately 16.2 per cent of membership of the lower house. Although the number of women in the Thai parliament increased by two from the last election in 2011, it is still lower than the international standard for women in politics of up to 20 per cent of the parliament. This small proportion of women MPs puts Thailand near the bottom – 182 of 193 countries – of the “Women in Parliament” list for 2019, compiled UN Women. And for women in ministerial positions, Thailand has since 2014 tied for last place at 0 per cent.
In Thailand, women score well in nearly all measures of leadership in the corporate sphere, far surpassing most other Asian countries and enjoying a good position globally. Thai women are the driving force behind businesses across many industries and companies, making up 40 per cent of CEOs and 34 per cent of CFOs. Thailand ranks first in the world for women’s enrolment in higher education, with 1.41 women attending a university for every man. While women are making significant progress in Thailand’s corporate sector, politics presents a stark contract. Women are being left behind in that sphere. During the five years of military government under the National Council for Peace and Order, only 13 women were appointed in the junta’s 250-seat parliament, accounting for just 5.2 per cent of the membership of the military-appointed legislature. And only two women, out of 21 members in all, were selected to sit on the 2017 Constitutional Drafting Committee.
In the 2019 elections, approximately 11,181 candidates ran in 350 parliamentary constituencies. Only 2,466 candidates (22.06 per cent) were women. Under the party-list system, parties included 2,917 candidates to fill 150 seats, and only 622 candidates or 22.2 per cent were women. After the election, the Election Commission of Thailand reported that 54 women candidates had won constituency seats and that 27 woman had won party-list seats, accounting for 15.4 per cent and 18 per cent of the total of 350 and 150 seats in the parliament, respectively. To consider the competitiveness between men and women in the elections, in constituency races female candidates’ chances of winning seats were 2.3 per cent, while male candidates’ chances were 3.5 per cent. And under the party-list system female candidates’ chances were only 4.3 per cent compared to 5.6 per cent for male candidates. And this means that, out of 100 candidates, female candidates would win two seats in constituency races and four seats under the party-list system. Women nominated to compete under the party-list system tended to have a greater chance to win seats than those running in constituency races because political parties tried to put the names of female candidates at the top of their party lists.
One measure that could help to enhance the role of women in politics is a new gender quota, a constitutional mandate that requires a certain proportion of women … either to serve in parliament or at least to be nominated by political parties.
These data indicate that women are underrepresented in government and in parliament in Thailand, places where women need backing to get ahead. One measure that could help to enhance the role of women in politics is a new gender quota, a constitutional mandate that requires a certain proportion of women — at a minimum 20 per cent and as an ideal 50 per cent — either to serve in parliament or at least to be nominated by political parties. Thailand’s 2017 Constitution has no gender quota. There were attempts on the part of both many NGOs such as Wemove and a number of scholars to push for the inclusion of a gender quota in this charter. The drafters, however, only included brief mention in Article 90 of the need for political parties to consider gender equality before nominating candidates for election. While many nations do apply gender quotas in their electoral systems, only three — Bolivia, Cuba and Rwanda — have more women than men in their legislatures.
Although the situation of women in Thai politics does not signify as much progress as other ASEAN neighbors, it has gradually improved in every election. Whether or not the role of women in Thai politics will be enhanced, and recognized by the public, also depends on how woman politicians present themselves in the parliament. Voters would prefer to see women politicians participate in substantive parliamentary debates instead of insulting one another, as in the attack by a Ratchaburi representative of the Phalang Pracharath Party on a female MP from the Future Forward Party last week, in which the former used a very rude Thai prefix to refer to the latter.
Punchada Sirivunnabood was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand.