With Thailand’s general election on March 24, its first in eight years, the nation is abuzz. Voters’ emotions range from excited to worried to outright scared, and until recently repressed public spaces are now alive with political talk, including about women candidates on the ballot.

“It’s good that there more women candidates,” says Pakawan Ariya Thanapoonsil, a 60-year-old food vendor from Thailand’s central Prachinburi province. “When I see more women on the campaign posters, I feel proud.”

Best known among them is premier candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan of the main opposition party Peua Thai, connected to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

At a campaign rally in February in Nonthaburi, a province just northwest of Bangkok, Sudarat addressed an audience of more than a thousand, who showered her with roses and kisses as she made her way to the stage.

“You choose Peua Thai and you’ll get Sudarat. You choose the other parties and you’ll get two uncles!” she said to the crowd, answering in a chorus of cheers.

But Sudarat is a rarity in Thailand, where women are severely underrepresented in politics.

“As a woman, when I fight with the army, the people sympathize with me more, and it gives a lot of inspiration to other women,” Sudarat told Asia Times in an interview. “[But] it’s quite hard work [to be a woman candidate] … and it’s quite difficult to recruit other women candidates.”

Peua Thai prime minister candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan (R) speaks with a woman while campaigning in Bangkok on March 5, 2019, ahead of the March 24 general election. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Of the 68 prime ministerial candidates in this election, just eight are women. Moreover, as of January 2019, women made up only 5.4% of the country’s military-appointed parliament, according to a UN Women index that ranked Thailand 182 out of 193 nations. For women in ministerial positions, Thailand ties for last place at 0%.

“We know that women are underrepresented as voters and in leadership positions across the globe,” says Alison Davidian, program specialist at the Women, Peace and Security division of UN Women.

“We can start working on that right now, to set the groundwork for more women to be engaged, so that we’re not relying on individual women to break down obstacles but giving women collectively more opportunities to participate.”

Many Thai voters, men included, say they don’t care about the gender of the next prime minister, as long as he or she brings about the change they’re desperately looking for.

After what many Thais see as an illegitimate takeover, a military dictatorship has been in power since 2014, leading to, in their opinion, a weakened economy and worsened livelihoods.

But while the public would, in theory, put more women in political office, they say there’s a shortage of qualified candidates.

“It would be an achievement to have another woman as prime minister,” says 47-year-old taxi driver Wanchai Poonprasit, referring to the country’s first and only female premier, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, who was unseated in the 2014 military coup.

A 'Red Shirt' supporter holds a picture of of ousted former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra while waiting for the verdict in a negligence trial involving Yingluck at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, September 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
A ‘Red Shirt’ supporter holds a picture of ousted former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, September 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

“It would be an achievement to have more women in parliament. … But women are not interested in politics. They don’t apply to become candidates.”

Women’s underrepresentation in government, however, has less to do with actual disinterest in politics than with the unlevel playing field that severely limits access and engagement, says Davidian. Ranging from gender discrimination to major gaps in resources and capacity building, the structural barriers are steep.

“We need to challenge the gender stereotypes that exist as part of the culture norms that prevent women from being able to run,” says Davidian, pointing to traditional attitudes that men are more capable and politically minded, despite evidence showing that greater numbers of women in office lead to improved governance, decreased corruption and more sustainable peace.

And in patriarchal societies like Thailand, such stereotypes are even more pronounced, with many still viewing politics as a man’s domain, too rough and tumble for women to handle.

According to Ruengrawee Pichaikul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute (GDRI) in Bangkok, this public perception has much to do with Thailand’s history of political violence, ranging from the country’s many coups since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932, to reports of rampant vote-rigging, vote-buying and other forms of electoral corruption.

Women candidates are also subjected to greater scrutiny than their male counterparts, adds Ruengrawee, whereby they’re more likely to be professionally evaluated based on their personal lives, and then judged and harassed for them.

“Women candidates can be defeated very easily due to stigmatization,” she says.

Women apply for membership at the military proxy Palang Pracharat Party head office in Bangkok on November 25, 2018. Photo: AFP via Bangkok Post/Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

In the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South of Thailand, where some believe Islam bans women’s leadership, the prejudice is even more extreme.

Patimoh Pak Etaedaod, a Muslim MP candidate from Yala running under the Action Coalition for Thailand banner, says she’s endured online attacks for being a single mother and false accusations of using sex to advance her career.

“Men have accused me of being a mistress,” she told Asia Times. “Men have told me that you can talk about human rights but you cannot talk about women’s rights. Actually, women’s rights are included in human rights, but here it’s as if they’re separated.”

Another Muslim MP candidate, Pechdau Tohmeena of the Bhumjaithai party, says she’s encountered resistance from men who don’t want to acknowledge her candidacy, despite the Islamic Committee ruling that while women cannot serve as imams, they can serve as representatives.

“I have to explain a lot,” Pechdau told Asia Times. “When I went to the mosque, the imam understands, but … in the village, they hear, ‘females cannot, females cannot,’ even though we can.”

In a 2000 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of female parliamentarians, 37% said gender-based hostility was a roadblock to them running. Another IPU study, from 2016, found 81.8% had been the target of psychological violence.

Two women cast their ballots during early voting in Bangkok on March 17, 2019, ahead of the March 24 general election. Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

“You have to be strong. You have to be confident,” Pechdau says. “We have hope every time we have an election. And this time we will increase the number of women in parliament.”

One measure that could help is a new gender quota, a constitutional mandate that requires a certain proportion of women—at a minimum, 30%, and, as an ideal, 50%—either to serve in parliament or to be nominated by political parties. Thailand has no gender quota.

While many nations do use some sort of quota policy, only three in the world—Bolivia, Cuba and Rwanda—have more women than men in their legislatures.

“It’s very difficult to explain to political leaders to use the quota system. Even very smart guys ask me, ‘Why? It’s undemocratic!’ But they don’t understand the gender discrimination,” says Ruengrawee, who was a former senior program coordinator for Thailand at the Asia Foundation. “I don’t understand why all these men, when they talk in the international setting, seem to understand gender equality, but after they step down from the stage, they don’t.”

Other important measures for equal representation in government relate to building and promoting the pipeline of women candidates. By providing campaign financing, training, mentoring and networking opportunities, advocates hope more women will be encouraged to enter politics.

Ruengrawee’s institute, for example, offers a free two-day educational workshop on leadership, voter analysis and message development and communication. So far, more than 200 women interested in running for office have participated.

“Women want to take part in politics, but we are suppressed,” Patimoh says. “But the attacks have made us stronger. If there had been none, maybe I would not be here today.”