March 24, 2019
Pro-military party exceeds expectation as Democrats struggle.
Thailand’s election is almost over with 90 percent reporting and surprises abound as the pro-military Palang Pracharat party has proven a stronger adversary than expected for the Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party.
We take a look at several storylines that should be recapped as the country struggles to make sense of Sunday’s election.
Thailand’s oldest political party must reorganize, reinvent
Long billing themselves as the historical saviors of Thai democracy, the Democrat Party of Thailand have become the unwanted, middle-of-the-road party that stands for nothing and is appealing to none.
The party will need to take a long hard look at itself after coming behind several other parties including the upstart Future Forward Party. Before placing blame on others, or Thaksin (as they tend to do for basically everything), the Democrat might want to look at its track record over the past two decades to figure out what went wrong.
They can start by looking at how they came into power in 2008 despite not winning the majority of seats and how they were able to form a government after the constitutional courts disbanded and red-carded their rivals. A legitimate party would have probably called for elections, the Democrats hung on for another three years.
We can also look into the crackdown in 2010, when refusing to resign, Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered a military crackdown on protesters (some of whom were armed, many of whom were not) in the middle of Bangkok leading to the death of over 90 people.
We can talk about how Abhisit has had over 15 years to reorganize his party, to get rid of the old guard of the party, to instill new blood or at least a platform that wasn’t a complete rip-off of Thaksin’s economic policies. He achieved none of that.
We can talk about the senior party leadership and how they supported the PDRC protests of 2014 that ushered in the military coup, how Abhisit and Chuan Leekpai stood on a stage in downtown Bangkok alongside people that were calling for a military takeover.
Now with the military fully in charge and with a political party of their own, why would anyone vote for the Democrats? They didn’t and now Abhisit has resigned and the Democrat’s Faustian bargain ended the way we expected, not with a bang but a whimper.
Perhaps the silver lining now is that the party has no excuses not to reinvent and reorganize itself. A lot of younger Democrats are still loyal to the party and if they can secure it for themselves, perhaps the party will be a force once again in the not too distant future.
Pheu Thai needs a Thaksin solution
What is clear from talking to people on the ground and the millions of vox-pops from around the country leading up to the elections is that more people voted against Pheu Thai than voted for Palang Pracharat.
There is definitely a catch-22 to the Thaksin conundrum that the party faces. On one hand their base of support absolutely adores him still and will vote for that brand continuously. But that base is shrinking, and more and more people are finding his continued interference in Thai politics unpalatable.
So how does the party move on? It will need to reorganize and reinvent as well but to a lesser degree than the Democrats. Many people like Chadchart Sittipunt, the deputy party leader and prime minister nominee, who is seen as a voice of reason within the party as opposed to Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan who is perceived as a Thaksin ally and part of the old guard.
What is clear is that the Thaksin question needs to be solved before the next election if Pheu Thai is to enjoy the dominance that it once had.
Future Forward offers a new way
There was much ado about Thailand’s first-time voters and under-30s voters leading into the election and boy have they spoken. Thanathorn Jungrungreangkit’s Future Forward Party surpassed all expectations and will take a significant number of seats in the next parliament.
For a party contesting its first election, the results are incredible, and Thailand can count a true progressive party in its ranks for the first time. Rather than the tried and tested method of running and buying local political families to run, Future Forward ran based solely on issues and won in the face of cronyism.
That Future Forward took seats in Bangkok from the Democrats and were the second or third most popular party in most contest means that younger Thais are finally embracing a third way beyond the conservative vs Thaksin divide.
The Uncle Tuu Brand is strong
What should be recognized in Palang Pracharat’s victory is the strength of the Prayuth Chan-ocha brand. Yes he seized power illegally in 2014, yes he help lead a crackdown against protesters in 2010, yes his government has been repressive and have used legal and extra-legal measures to ensure its continued rule but to a sector of the Thai population he is as popular as well.
The plain-speaking general and his avuncular mannerisms is a central part of why Palang Pracharat won as many seats as they did and this should not be discounted now or in the future. Prayuth Chan-ocha has a strong political brand.