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In an ideal world, political representation by gender is supposed to be around 50-50 but in reality the figures are the extreme opposite. 

This is especially true in Thailand’s local politics. According to a report by UN Women, as of January 2023, Thai women held only 20.4 percent of elected seats in local government. Out of 89,329 elected positions, there were 18,262 women. At the end of last year, Thailand had 32.2 million males and 33.8 million females.

According to the report, Thailand ranks 96th out of 141 countries, ahead of Israel, Indonesia, and Japan, but behind Vietnam, Cuba, and Finland. Thailand has not yet experimented with gender quotas for any local political positions, a measure which can be revolutionary in bringing about a greater gender balance. 

As the junta’s influence gradually fades away, many obstacles have been lifted for all Thai citizens to participate more in politics at every level. This is also true for many women who enter politics through elections. 

However, women leaders remain a rare species in local politics. Because of the particular limitations that they have to face, Thai women have to work much harder just to be seen as the equals of their male counterparts. Yet they go beyond that to inspire new generations to join public service. 

Glass ceiling

In the 2020 local elections, women won only 13 out of 76 seats as presidents of Provincial Administrative Organizations (PAOs), according to the King Prajadhipok's Institute database. Among these, only 3 women were re-elected in comparison to 29 men. 

By region, the northeast of Thailand has the largest number of women PAO presidents (5 out of 20, or 25 percent). The east has the second-biggest ratio (2 out of 9, or 22 percent). The west (1 out of 7, or 14 percent) has the lowest number together with the south, which also has the lowest ratio (1 out of 14, or only 7 percent). PAO presidents have 4-year terms which will expire in December this year. 

According to Rocket Media Lab, women candidates for PAO president are outnumbered from the start. Out of 332 candidates, 238 were men (85 percent) and only 49 were women (15 percent). The biggest group of women candidates (19) run as independents. 

PAO presidents are the highest elected executive positions in local administration. The PAOs also have legislative Councils, also elected. Below the PAOs are Subdistrict Administrative Organizations (SAOs) and municipalities. There are also Special Administrative Regions such as Bangkok and Pattaya. 

King Prajadhipok's Institute reports that among the 5300 SAO presidents who held office from before the 2014 military coup until 2021, 93 percent were men and only 7 percent were women. At the municipal level of the same period, there were 2233 male mayors and only 208 females.

For some researchers, the lack of female representation in local government can be attributed to the pervasive idea, rooted in various social institutions, that it is better for women to live in the household as a wife and a mother, that women can’t “have it all”, and that men have better leadership traits. 

Related to this is the lack of equal opportunities for women in education and the economy, which can get in the way of women’s political participation. Thailand performs well above the global average on the Gender Inequality Index, but still has a 16.1 percent gender gap in labour force participation rate. 

Even if educational and economic opportunities improve, it does not automatically lead to more female representation, especially in local politics. Lack of political empowerment at the local level can also convince women to seek careers elsewhere, such as becoming corporate CEOs and managers. Arguably, this may be part of the reason why Thailand has a larger proportion of women corporate leaders than global averages

Even when they get elected, women leaders in local government still have to face the structural problems that any leader has to face. Local elected bodies often have limited power and resources, as well as overlapping responsibilities, putting them in a power struggle with provincial governors and district chiefs appointed from Bangkok. 

Despite these limitations, women leaders in local politics have been working relentlessly to combat gender stereotypes, to improve the people’s standard of living, and to become living examples for future generations. 


Kesirin Tunkeaw

Kesirin Tunkeaw, President of the Mae Win Subdistrict Administrative Organization, Chiang Mai Province

“If men work 100 percent, we must work 500 percent for everything.” said Kesirin Tunkeaw, President of the Mae Win Subdistrict Administrative Organization, Chiang Mai Province. “It is certainly a problem and obstacle.” 

“In the past, they did not have confidence in women. They taught that men are the front legs of the elephant, and women are the back legs. The problem was that they did not have much confidence in women to do the work. They see that women only work behind the scenes such as washing clothes, cooking, and farming,” said Kesirin. 

After Yingluck Shinawatra became Prime Minister in 2011, people were more ready for women leaders, said Kesirin. But more importantly, “we begin with ourselves and our family and become a good example for the community”. 

One of her proudest achievements as SAO President was to tap an available budget to bring electricity to a far-flung community located in a forest reserve area, something that even the MP in her constituency failed to do.

Under Kesirin’s leadership, the Mae Win SAO single-handedly solved land disputes between villagers, who claimed that they had been working the land for generations, and the authorities, who claimed that they had been encroaching into the forest reserve. 

By bringing the stakeholders together to cultivate a common understanding, using satellites for demarcation, and tracking historical records, Mae Win SAO passed regulations to give land rights to the villagers which they are only allowed to pass on to their next generation and where selling is prohibited. 

Thanks to its success, Mae Win SAO was awarded 1.8 million baht by the Department of Local Administration, the Ministry of Interior, for being the second-best local administration body in Thailand, after Ubol Ratchathani PAO. 

“We do not look down on men, but the villagers said that even the men couldn’t do it, but the women could. So they put their faith in me,” said Kesirin. 

Diverse strategies

Wongakuea Bunson, a former member of Sakon Nakhon Provincial Administrative Organization Council

When women leaders win power in local government, they have few examples to follow. As they come into power, they have strategic decisions to make, including what leadership style they should deploy and what issues they should prioritize. 

For Wongakuea Bunson, a former member of Sakon Nakhon Provincial Administrative Organization Council, entering politics as a woman has its own strength. One of many merits of being a woman politician is the ability to connect.

“Women also have sensitivity and sympathy, which lead to empathy in solving a problem in a serious way, and which lead to acknowledgment of the problem in order to coordinate to fight for a solution, follow-up, and solve the problem in a concrete way”, said Wongakuea.

However, women politicians also have one particular weakness. 

“’Behaviour’ is another limitation a women politicians have to face,” said Wongakuea, “When working in politics, we often have to work with and are surrounded by a bigger number of men. So distancing and appropriate work behaviour for women politicians are important. So traveling together, joining parties during fieldwork, and working at night may be something of a limitation for women politicians.” 

For Wongakuea, being a woman politician means having more opportunity to push forward particular issues for women, children, and vulnerable groups including education, domestic violence, and increasing income for local women. 

“Nowadays the ratio between male and female politicians still has much smaller numbers of women,” said Wongakuea, “So we may miss out on pushing forward particular issues. So representing the people requires the voices of all groups of people, whether women, men, or alternative genders.” 

Srisopha Kotkhamlue, a Pheu Thai party MP for Chiang Mai Constituency 10.

Srisopha Kotkhamlue, a Pheu Thai party MP for Chiang Mai Constituency 10, has a different approach from Wongakuea. Before becoming an MP, Srisopha was secretary to the Chiang Mai PAO President and is the manager of Chiang Mai United football team. 

In her view, some issues, such as basic infrastructure and the economy, are more urgent in her constituency than women’s rights, even though they are just as important. Although her main duties as a constituency MP is to speak on behalf of her constituency in parliament, she also has a role in local administration. 

“Most duties of constituency MPs are more like mediating and taking care that the local people have what is suitable for Chiangmai Constituency 10. It is the biggest constituency in Chiang Mai Province, and comes with a lot of responsibilities,” said Srisopha. 

These include supporting the smaller municipalities whose areas consist mainly of forest reserves and which do not have enough revenue to maintain their own roads. In these cases, she would coordinate with these municipalities to transfer the responsibility to the Ministry of Transport. 

Out of 400 constituency MPs, Srisopha is one of 97 women who got elected to parliament. This was a significant improvement from the previous election in which women won only 54 seats out of 350. (The total number of constituencies changed due to the latest constitutional amendment.) 

What is to be done?

Jutatip Sirikhan, a political activist and a leader of the pro-democracy protests in 2020-2021

Women leaders become examples for younger generation to follow. Jutatip Sirikhan, a political activist and a leader of the pro-democracy protests in 2020-2021, wants to begin her political career in her home province of Amnat Charoenin in the northeast. 

However, very few younger women are interested in local politics, she said. Local politics is often associated with influence, money, and gray businesses, which are believed to be men’s domain. So younger women have second thoughts about joining local politics. 

However, Jutatip is an exception. Inspired by her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan, a leader of the Seri Thai resistance in the World War II who was murdered under Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s dictatorship, she wants to make politics fairer for everyone. In her view, making local politics safer for women means taking down the ‘big houses’ and promoting people’s political participation. 

In fact, entering local politics can be just as hard for men who do not come from moneyed backgrounds. For Thanakorn Summasako, a candidate who lost in an election for the Buriram Provincial Administrative Organization Council, money and influence is the biggest barrier preventing people from entering politics. 

“No matter if they are women or men, if they are commoners who come from the grass roots or are born in a family which is not rich or influential, entering local politics is equally hard. The expenses are very important, including the registration fee and campaigning. There should be a solution for this, such as making registration free of charge.” said Thanakorn. 

However, this does not mean women do not face obstacles specific to their gender. 

 Asst Prof Dararat Khampeng of the University of Phayao

According to Asst Prof Dararat Khampeng of the University of Phayao, many women began public service as Village Health Volunteers or Labour Volunteers. At first, they are very well-received by their communities. But when they decide to enter local politics, public support for them declines. In her view, this is a social pattern rather than a set of separate cases. 

In many countries, various gender quota measures are applied “to correct historical gender imbalance in local government and fast-track women’s representation,” according to UN Women in 2021. These measures can be either voluntary or legislated. According to UN Women, legislated measures are far more effective. 

Legislated measures can take the form of reserved seats or candidate quotas. Candidate quotas can target a proportion of women candidates as well as their ranking on candidate lists. In some countries, non-compliance can result in rejection of the candidate lists, fines, or cuts to public funding of election campaigns. 

These ideas sound convincing. But some scholars think that they may not be adequate for Thailand. For one thing, a gender balance in local politics would not matter at all if local politics itself is made irrelevant in the first place.

Assoc Prof Pinyapan Potjanalawan of Lampang Rajabhat University

“For me, the issue of gender and local politics is not so much a problem as the fact that local politics is dominated by the centre through the centralization of political power and that the resources stay in the centre and Bangkok”, said Assoc Prof Pinyapan Potjanalawan of Lampang Rajabhat University.

“The important issue is how to abolish the provincial governors and the central bureaucracy so that only the PAO presidents remain, similar to the campaign which called for the election of provincial governors” said Pinyapan. 

Furthermore, even if a gender quota was enforced here, it would still be “just the first step” and “it would not be a way of ensuring power, acceptance, and the creation of public policy more accessible for women,” said Assistant Professor Dararat. 

“Those things will happen only when society truly acknowledges abilities [of women] and the qualities of capable women, and when a patriarchal structure does not control and direct the thoughts of women who are leaders,” said Dararat. “This means that even if we get a woman leader, as long as we are subjected to a patriarchal social structure, that leader will still lack understanding and gender awareness.”

For Dararat and Pinyapan, the long-term solution is to empower women at all levels, not just at the level of local leaders. This can be done when women come together to form women’s groups and push forward policies for women rights through all available platforms, especially through their local governments.

“With regard to the proposal to push for women to have more of a role, it may be [a good idea] to encourage policies which support the formation of more diverse women’s groups … such as labour unions, advisory groups, or maybe organizing something similar to parliamentary committees, but at the level of the local councils, and work in an interconnected way at all levels including SAOs, municipalities and PAOs,” said Pinyapan. 

“Bringing together ‘women’s groups’ in order to gain access to all kinds of roles is therefore important and will make our voices more powerful, so that no matter if the president or representatives in local councils are women or whatever gender, women’s voices can always be powerful in shaping public policy,” said Dararat. 

“From my past experience, I always have confidence in local politics, that it is politics that is the closest to the people, and that it can encourage political participation so that people can approach politics in the most tangible way,” said Dararat. “Lastly, I hope that feminism or an appreciation in public policy for women can happen among every gender and every age group. ”

Correction: We incorrectly stated that women won 12 out of 76 seats as presidents of Provincial Administrative Organizations (PAOs). The number has been corrected to 13. Additionally, the number of women who were re-elected, as well as the statistics by region, have also been corrected accordingly.


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