BANGKOK, Thailand (WOMENSENEWS)–Thailand’s first female candidate for prime minister is leading public opinion polls in the lead-up to the national election July 3.

But if Yingluck Shinawatra wins, prominent women’s rights leaders here doubt she will do much to truly close the country’s gender gap in political representation.

"This isn’t a normal situation. Yingluck has never been in politics and she has never been fighting for the rights of women," said Sutada Mekrungruengkul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute in Bangkok. "We cannot say this is progress or a sign of gender equality."

The 44-year-old business woman’s political resume is mainly being the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted in 2006 on corruption charges who retains a strong hold over the leading Pheu Thai Party from self-imposed exile in Dubai.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolved the national parliament in May, in anticipation of the elections. Women were only 15 percent of its 650-person body, according to Pawadee Tonguthai, co-convener of Asia Pacific Women Watch, which monitors implementation of development goals focused on women set by the United Nations.

Mekrungruengkul believes that Yingluck’s campaign rhetoric–full of praise for her popular older brother and seasoned with references to women’s rights–will work.

"This may attract a lot of women voters and people in general who want to promote women’s rights, since this is how the Pheu Thai Party is advertising her campaign," she said. "Yingluck is promising very big things, and if she can deliver on them, it will be good for women. But if not, it can really jeopardize our movement."

The women’s rights movement in Thailand has few advocates among politicians. Many female candidates view organizations devoted to women as making trouble, says Sirirporn Skrobanek, chairperson of the Foundation for Women, a non-governmental organization that combats violence and discrimination against women.

Low Political Participation

Female participation in Thai government is among lowest in Southeast Asia.

In 2007, women were less than 7 percent of local officials, according to the United Nations Development Program. In 2011, that figure had climbed to almost 12 percent–past Sri Lanka–but still lagging 23 nations in the region. In those countries, high-ranking female senators rose to almost 16 percent from around 11 percent between 2000 and 2008.

In addition, Thailand has a longstanding tradition of male politicians advocating for their sisters, wives and daughters to run in their place.

This year that trend is particularly pronounced.

Of the 3,800 candidates running for positions in the 500-seat capacity House of Representatives, 2,800 are men and 1,000 are women. Roughly 40 percent of the women are related to an acting male politician.

Mekrungruengkul is quick to note that unlike Yingluck, some of these women do also have experience in public office. Yingluck’s nomination and large following represent a revival of the pro-Thaksin "red shirts," or United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, a rural, grassroots movement formed in 2006 to protest the military government that overthrew Thaksin shortly before the elections, according to the women’s rights advocates interviewed.

The following five years of power struggle between the "red shirts" and the People’s Alliance for Democracy "yellow shirts" — royalist, urban, upper-class and anti-Thaksin — have embroiled the capital city in violent street protests and, in a sign of deep instability, a succession of five prime ministers.

Yingluck’s election could incite "yellow shirts" and lead them to protest or launch a military coup, some analysts predict. Such a scenario would prevent her from moving forward on campaign promises.

Promising a Women’s Ministry

Since she announced her candidacy in May 16, Yingluck has promised to set up a women’s development fund with funding of about $3 million in each of Thailand’s 76 provinces and to create an independent women’s ministry at the government level.

But Skrobanek is skeptical of any campaign promises in the context of a possible effort by the candidate’s brother to use her as his proxy.

Yingluck would have to secure majority support of 500 newly elected House of Representative officials before she could take office. Once her party gains that, a male party representative could step forward as leader. Once in power, a Pheu Thai prime minister would likely set up a series of legal reforms to help Thaksin return home; a plan Yingluck has already proposed.

Skrobanek said this might be a better alternative to Yingluck following through on her run.

"What’s the use of having women as political leaders if they are not conscious of women’s issues?" she said. "If she wins and she doesn’t care, she won’t be contributing anything to women at all."

Her brief campaign has attracted her brother’s loyalists, many of whom like the attractive, amiable woman portrayed by national media.

Sidestepping Debate

Last week Yingluck declined to publicly debate her top opponent, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, and sent her party’s economic adviser in her place.

"It’s better to be silent and have people think you are a fool than to be outspoken and to prove they are right," Tonguthai said.

The burst in female candidates this election could help Thailand to continue outperforming on the gender related areas of the Millennium Development Goals, targets set by the United Nations in 2000, to be reached by 2015.

Two gender goals for 2015–to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three quarters and to achieve boy-girl parity in primary and secondary schools–appear on target.

Maternal mortality rates, according to the United Nations Development Program, increased slightly from 44.50 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 49.90 deaths per 100,000 births in 2007, but Thailand is still considered on target to meet its goal of 36 deaths per 100,000 births by 2015.

The ratio of girls to boys in primary schools improved from .93 to .94 percent — with 1.0 as the target — from 2000 to 2009, according to the UNDP.

A remaining goal is to double representation of women in national parliament to a quota of 30 percent by 2015.

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Amy Lieberman, currently in Southeast Asia, is a correspondent at the United Nations headquarters and a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information:

Al-Sharif’s video

Honk for Women Driving Campaign

Asia-Pacific Women’s Watch

U.N. Millenium Devlopment Goals Campaign

International Women’s Democracy Center–Fact Sheets on Political Participation