Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Can Thai Women Break Down Political Barriers?

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra walks past a military honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing April 17, 2012. UPI/Stephen Shaver

Anyone living in Thailand during the summer months of 2011 were prone to hear political trucks blasting campaign slogans and anthems throughout the streets all over the country.  In July of that same year, the Thai people elected Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female Prime Minister.  This was a huge step forward for a country that had ranked 92 out of 138 countries on the Gender Inequality Index.[1]  Beyond her election to the highest office in Thailand, she also became Chair to the National Committee on the Policy and Strategy for the Advancement of Women.  Her election and service helped to regularize policies related to women.  It is important to look at the overall trends however instead of merely analyzing one figure’s impact.  The results are more alarming than this progressive election might lead one to believe.

                There are several institutional sources that demand gender equality in Thailand.  Most prominent among these is Thailand’s 2007 Constitution.  This phenomenal work was produced by a huge cross-section of Thais, and included involvement from most Thai factions, (ethnic, economic, and political).  It was widely regarded by the international community as a standard for developing democracies.  This people’s constitution upheld the rights of women.  It did not discriminate, either explicitly or informally against women running for office.

                Following the authoring of the Constitution, Thailand’s government initiated an Office of Women’s Affairs and Family Development.  This organization worked under preexisting social development branches of the government.  Its primary role is to serve as a catalyst to empower women.  As Thailand’s government began to shift its focus onto women, it would seem that greater representative power would follow.
                There was a substantial bump in representation from 2008 to 2011.  In 2011, women made up 15% of MPs, 16% of senators, and 17% of senior civil service positions despite outnumbering men as civil servants. At the local level, in 2008, women constituted 9.4% of elected officials.  The private sector had even higher rates of board room participation.[2]  While this is a great step forward, the situation is still extremely problematic.  Not only is women’s civic involvement extremely low, women’s representation is still terribly minimal.  The institutional changes that happened in the very recent past tried to improve these inequalities, however, they were not sufficient enough to close the gap completely.  While these steps are important steps to formalizing equal representation, the real problem in Thailand lies at the recruitment level.

                Asian societal interactions are often known for their nepotistic style.  Guan Xi in China and the caste system in India are prime examples of this.  While nepotism and paybacks are not necessarily generalizable to all of Asia, Thailand and other countries are still privy to this type of social interaction.  Patriarchal political networks in Thailand such as the royal family and political parties, still dominate the spectrum of political interaction.  Thailand’s use of clientelism provides a strategy for various Thai political actors.  It ensures their continued power.  Moreover, it provides stability in a very unpredictable polity.
                Thailand is victim to numerous judicial and military coups over the past few decades.  The low regard for rule of law in Thailand might explain why the 2007 Constitution and its agencies did not completely achieve the goal of equality.  Stability is more important than gender equality for individual victims of political instability.  In a system that is under constant flux, the few political organizations that maintain a high level of importance are the political parties.  These parties are the primary proponents of clientelism.  Clientelism is an informal political and business tactic that requires the production and maintenance of large and localized networks to help distribute services, goods, and money in exchange for political salience and power.

                Thailand’s political powers are often seen as primary motivators of this type of interaction.  Where political parties also use candidate selection procedures that are informal, exclusive and localized, there are ample openings for clientelist practices to translate into political power and ultimately parliamentary seats.  The parties reinforce a male-dominated system.  The political capital in Thailand at the party level is usually only accessible to men.  These parties are necessary for the electoral process. As such, the primary halting point to women’s participation is the informal way in which political parties organize themselves.

                Most of the formalist solutions to this problem that are available by means of legislation have already been employed.  The real problem of Thailand’s low women representation lies in the recruitment phase of a politician’s life.  The clientelist approach of Thailand’s political parties prevent women from even putting their names on the ballots.  The few times that women are actually elected, they are more often than not, related to a network of male politicians.  Such is the case of Yingluck, sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  While highly important institutional changes have taken place to establish greater gender equality, the informal societal interactions of political parties have to shift in order to achieve true equality in Thailand’s government.

[1] UN Women Thailand Country Programme. Bangkok: UN Women: United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 2012.
[2] Bjarnegård, Elin. Men in Politics: Revisiting Patterns of Gendered Parliamentary Representation in Thailand and Beyond. Uppsala: Dept. of Government, Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala Univ., 2009.

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