Thai, Turkish polls: Lessons for opposition

In both countries, charismatic, capable, and uncompromising leaders unified disparate civil society groups and fearlessly advocated for progressive reform.

Richard Heydarian

Richard Heydarian

Philippine Daily Inquirer


May 18, 2023

MANILA – The rule of law has prevailed,” declared Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla shortly after the acquittal of former senator Leila de Lima from yet another baseless charge under the previous administration. On her part, De Lima, among the bravest opposition leaders in recent memory, exclaimed: “This is the beginning of my vindication. Answered prayers.”

As I have argued in the past, one should have expected a “whiff of change” under President Rodrigo Duterte’s successor. After all, the former commander in chief was so demagogically callous and amateur scattershot that some kind of “reboot” was inevitable, even under a supposed political ally.

Others would even go so far as arguing that since Ferdinand Marcos Sr. effectively broke the country—impoverishing a once-promising nation with unsustainable crony debt and one-of-a-kind decadent dictatorship—then maybe hope that Marcos Jr. will fix it. After all, not much changed for the vast majority of Filipinos in the four decades that separated his father’s tenure from his own.

De Lima’s acquittal can’t be separated from broader shifts in the political landscape, especially as the incumbent seeks better relations with traditional allies, which have been lobbying for a more modern and humane form of democratic governance in the country.

Dear reader: Anyone with a basic familiarity with facts on the ground, however, knows that “rule of law” is still an aspiration rather than a full-fledged reality in the country. Only sustained political struggle and effective mobilization by progressive forces can bring about genuine democracy.

And this brings us to the two most consequential elections of the year, which have demonstrated the power of progressive politics in even more illiberal-authoritarian contexts than in the Philippines. In neighboring Thailand, nothing less than an electoral revolt took place. Over the weekend, countless young voters propelled a progressive party to the center of Thai politics, thus effectively ending the binary struggle between the so-called “red shirt” faction, namely supporters of populist ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the “yellow shirt” faction, namely supporters of the monarchy and urban middle class.

Barely years after resurrecting from the ashes of its predecessor, Future Forward Party, which was founded by young tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and the Move Forward (MF) Party led by young technocrat Pita Limjaroenrat, defied all odds by topping all other major parties, including Thaksin’s, in this year’s elections.

Not long ago, the youthful and youth-driven party, broadly social democratic in ideological orientation, was seen as a tad too radical for the general Thai electorate. After all, this was a party that not only questioned mandatory military conscription and lèse-majesté, effectively challenging the two pillars of conservative power in Thailand, but also advocated for a massive increase in minimum wages as well as the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Over the weekend, Pita insisted that there would be no compromise on his party’s key policy agenda, though it remains unclear how he could assume power without forming a coalition with not only Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party but also, at least, one faction of the pro-military establishment, most notably that of Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan. Nevertheless, MF’s electoral success under the shadow of a pro-military establishment, not to mention the threat of yet another coup, underscores the importance of authentically progressive and tirelessly charismatic leadership.

Meanwhile, Turkey has experienced its tightest elections in recent memory, with the strongman populist incumbent going neck and neck with the opposition. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is arguably one of the most successful politicians of the 21st century. Politically savvy, he is also a classic survivor, having overcome, in a span of a decade, a judicial coup (by secular rivals) as well as a military coup (by traditionalist allies) on the way to consolidating his grip on the country.

But by leveraging a unified opposition, and drawing on his well-established credentials as a capable and compassionate technocrat, Kemal Kilicdaroglu has come closer than anyone to defeating Erdogan in general elections. In both Thailand and Turkey, the progressive opposition has managed to pull off massive electoral gains and mobilize broad-based support groups even under the most intimidating conditions, which dwarf structural challenges in the Philippines. In both countries, charismatic, capable, and uncompromising leaders unified disparate civil society groups and fearlessly advocated for progressive reform against the tide of authoritarian populism.

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