Thai Female Political Representation in the 2019 Elections
Updated: Nov 26, 2019
By Carly Madsen, Jessica Preece, and Joel Selway
Picture: Two campaign posters from past Thai elections featuring female candidates. The one on the left features the candidate with the party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Thai voters are rightly focused on a return to democracy and general national stability. Studies across the world, however, routinely show that higher proportions of female politicians lead to these and a number of other positive social, political, and economic outcomes. This article details how Thailand is doing in terms of female representation, explores the structural roots of its performance in this area, and examines pathways to increase the number of women in politics. It presents the results of a survey experiment designed to boost the number of women running for office as well as increase support for women candidates in elections.
Thai parliaments experience a decrease in female representation during periods of authoritarian rule. The 2019 elections will thus likely increase female representation.
Electoral rule reform brought about mixed results: a lower proportion of female candidates, but a higher proportion of female MPs.
Parties and candidates need to draw attention to this underrepresentation as well as the qualifications of female candidates--both campaigning tactics significantly increase support from male and female voters, but especially the latter.
Parties should actively recruit female candidates, who are much more likely to run if invited by party elites (the same is not true for men).
Thailand’s largest party over the last two decades, Pheu Thai, has nominated a female candidate for the post of Prime Minister for the second election in a row. Khunying Sudarat is best known for her stint as Health Minister during the introduction of the 30-baht health scheme. But does her nomination correlate with female representation in Thai politics more generally?
Women currently hold fewer than 6% of Thailand’s parliamentary seats as the countdown to elections on March 24, 2019 continues. This dramatically low number is even more significant when recognizing that the National Council for Peace and Order--the military junta that has been leading Thailand since its most recent coup in 2014--selected and appointed the members of parliament without democratic elections.
The current proportion of female representation is significantly lower than numbers posted in the last few elections, edging much closer to rates in the 1990s. Thus, a much under-discussed benefit of a return to electoral politics--regardless of how free and fair one thinks the election will be--is the potential increase in female representation. Female representation peaked in the Saphaphuthan Ratsadon (House of Representatives) following the 2011 elections with just under 16%.
The political parties competing in the 2019 elections are posting similar rates of nomination as in the past few elections. The Pheu Thai party, for example, has rates of female representation of 13.6% for constituency candidates and 16.5% for party list candidates. If Pheu Thai is broadly representative of all the parties, we are likely to see a slightly lower rate of female representation in Thailand’s new parliament as rates of election have always been slightly lower than rates of nomination. Thus, while likely at least doubling the rates of female representation compared to the junta’s parliament, Thailand will still be nowhere close to the top countries in the world, who hover around complete parity.
It is important to understand the historical and cultural barriers that both prevent women from running for office in the first place and also prevent voters for choosing female candidates when they do run. While Thai women were granted the right to vote in 1932, their involvement as elected officials has developed slowly over time. Perhaps the largest boost to female representation came from electoral reform. The 1997 Constitution introduced an upper tier using Proportional Representation (PR) electoral rules, which have been shown in repeated studies to increase the number of women in parliaments across the world. The 2017 constitution continues with the use of separate seats assigned using PR, likely explaining the similar nomination rates cited above.
Despite electoral reform, however, women considering running for office continue to battle stereotypes that insist women are unfit for governing. Like many other cultures around the world, Thai society has perpetuated the belief that women are weak, indecisive, and emotional. Some of these beliefs can be connected to how Thai people view and practice Buddhism, which provides “a moral framework for men’s hierarchical precedence over women.” The effect of these stereotypes is two-fold: first, they affect the likelihood that women will run for office in the first place, and second, once on the ballot, they affect the likelihood that voters will choose female candidates over male candidates. We take on each of these questions in turn.
Barriers that prevent women running for office
Thai parties, on average, fielded female candidates in just under 12% of the seats they competed for between 1983-2005. Starting at just 2.9% of candidates running for parliament in the May 1983 elections, this reached a high of 15.6% in 1996, before falling to 11.9% in the 2005 elections. The fact that political parties have failed to recruit female candidates displays both an inherent cultural bias against women and also an obvious disinterest in the potential influence catering to female candidates and female voters could produce. Female candidates who run do so without the type of guidance and mentorship so instrumental to political success. Research indicates that female role models in politics can have a significant influence on whether, and how, female candidates run for office, and in Thailand, there is a limited supply of female politicians to act as role models.
Work on recruitment of female candidates in the US has shown that simply by reaching out to women and inviting them to run for office, political parties can significantly increase the proportion of female candidates. We build on those studies in a simple survey experiment we conducted in Thailand in 2015 and 2016. In a sample of around 2,000 respondents, we randomly divided respondents into a control group and a treatment group. We asked respondents in the control group a simple question: how likely are you to run for office if elections were held again soon? We asked the treatment group how likely they were to run for office if invited by a party head.
What did we find? For male respondents, the treatment had no effect. They are likely to run for office at the same rate (and this rate is higher than it is for women) regardless of whether party leaders reach out to them or not. However, for women, recruitment is crucial. The simple act of being invited to run for office increased their likelihood of running to almost the same as men. These results echo findings in the United States context, and suggest that Thai parties need to make a conscious effort to recruit women if they are serious about improving the gender balance.
Barriers that prevent voter support for women candidates
Typical stereotypes regarding women and politics in Thailand portray females as helpless and unfit for politics. This can curb the desire women have to run in the first place, but these stereotypes also hinder the women who actually run because voters view these candidates as being less capable than men.
Since 2009, more Thai women have enrolled in university and other tertiary studies than their male counterparts, suggesting that the Thai workforce--and pool for political candidates--is full of capable and qualified women. Has that translated into the political realm, however? In fact, our research does show that voters view female candidates as being equally qualified as male candidates.
To test this, we presented respondents with a brief description of a candidate. The gender of the candidate was randomized for each respondent (they either read the description of a male candidate or a female candidate). We then asked the respondents to rate the competence of the candidate and compared the average ratings for the male and female candidates. The average rating for both candidates was practically identical. This suggests that other biases might be at play.
But gender still remains a factor in voters’ willingness to actually select a candidate. In a third study, we presented respondents with a list of four candidates, two male and two female. Some respondents were additionally provided information on the qualifications of the respondent.
First, our research shows that it is female respondents, in the absence of any other information, that were less likely to support the hypothetical female candidates. However, this bias goes away when we provide information on the qualifications of the candidates. In fact, women are more likely to vote for the more-qualified female candidates (73% probability) then male voters are (62% probability). This suggests that women may have more ingrained biases against supporting candidates of their own gender, but once provided information on their qualifications, they become the most enthusiastic supporters.
In the absence of such information on candidates qualifications, or where male and female candidates are equally qualified, are there other ways to break down the bias against female candidates? In the third study, we also implemented a voter education tactic that has shown to help in the United States context. We educated a sub-sample of our respondents on the state of gender inequality in Thailand’s national parliament. For men, this helped a little, increasing the likelihood of voting for a female candidate from 57.8% to 63.0%. For women, the information had a huge effect: increasing their support from 42.7% to 65.3%.
If we care about increasing the proportion of females in the Thai legislature--and the nomination rates from the 2019 elections suggest this is still a significant problem--then Political Science theory has much that Thai political parties and interest groups can learn. The first thing we learn from our research is that Thai parties need to make a conscious effort to recruit female candidates. Second, when campaigning, female candidates should emphasize their qualifications. Lastly, we need to educate the Thai public on the underrepresentation of women in politics more generally. This issue of female representation has become lost in the focus on a return to democracy. But for Thai democracy to be truly resilient and effective in the future, increasing female representation has to be part of the conversation.
Carly Madsen holds a master’s in Public Administration from the Romney School of Public Administration, Brigham Young University. She recently returned from Thailand where she was a Boren Fellow. Carly speaks fluent Thai.
Jessica Preece is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University. She studies gender and politics utilizing the experimental method.
Joel Selway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University. He is a Thai politics expert and studies identity and elections.
 Females are also ranked slightly lower than men on the party list. Their average rank is 55.1 compared to men’s at 47.8.
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 These results are from an unpublished paper entitled “Tactics for Improving Female Representation in Thailand: Testing the Relevance of Western Theories in Developing Democracies.”
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10] This difference, however, was not statistically significant from the control group who were not provided the information on female under-representation in parliament.