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Does Campaign Rhetoric Resonate or Ring Hollow with Thai Voters?

June 29, 2011

At first glance, the lead-up to Thailand’s July 3 national parliamentary election seems little different from previous electoral countdowns. The campaign period has been fairly low-key, with political leaders occupied for the most part in defining their individual campaign personas and fairly measured in their comments on the character and record of opponents. Only now, in the closing days of the campaign, have reciprocal criticisms borne a sharper edge.

Thai election campaigns

Posters fill Bangkok's streets in the lead up to the election on July 3. Above, a poster in central Bangkok depicts a political candidate as a monkey to urge voters to vote "no" on the ballot. Photo by Arpaporn Winijkulchai.

The streets and sidewalks of Bangkok are, as in other campaign seasons, reduced to narrow corridors of colorful campaign posters in which national political leaders and constituency candidates strike poses and expressions that range from effortlessly poised to deliberately irreverent. Some posters feature the clever slogans of candidates that challenge the political mainstream, including: “Politics are like Pampers diapers – the more you change them, the better they are”; “When politicians use the word ‘honest’ how can anyone be happy?” and “If you love Thailand, then wrong must be wrong and right must be right.” Others feature less-than-subtle appeals by proponents of the “no” vote, urging voters to exercise the formal ballot option of rejecting all political candidates – the latter depicted as a menagerie of drooling dogs, banana-wielding apes, and vacant-eyed buffalos.

But while the campaign might appear rather subdued, one has only to digest the daily editorial sections of national newspapers, visit the Facebook and Twitter pages of contesting parties or the plethora of election-related social media sites, engage Bangkok taxi drivers in the savvy political analyses that they revel in, or mark the thoughtful reflections of Thai friends and colleagues to appreciate that this election is different, and one of profound significance to the political future of Thailand.

This election follows five years of political tension and tumult, a period whose legacy includes a succession of disputed parliamentary elections, judicial dissolution of established political parties and individual politicians, military intervention, blockades of airports and government buildings, and large-scale street demonstrations. The crisis culminated in an angry wave of violence and bloodshed in the streets of Bangkok in May 2010, traumatizing a nation that had not experienced political violence on such scale for nearly two decades. In addition to fueling public apprehension of further violence, the political crisis has diverted the attention of government and political leaders from critical issues. These include national economic recovery, regional leadership and competitiveness, resolution of the bitter communal conflict in the southern border provinces, and the heated border dispute with Cambodia over the management of the Preah Vihear temple site – each of which have barely figured in campaign discourse.

While 40 political parties are contesting the election, the key electoral race is that waged between the incumbent Democrat and opposition Pheu Thai parties. The Democrats have held power since December 2008 through a coalition arrangement with several smaller political parties. As proxy for exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Pheu Thai succeeds several previous Thaksin parties that were dissolved by the courts. The two parties occupy very different places in the national political landscape. The Democrats, led by Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, have historical ties to elite interest groups that have tended to prefer guided democracy over hands-on engagement with the population at large. Pheu Thai commands a traditional base of support among rural farmers and urban wage earners, many of whom continue to embrace Thaksin – notwithstanding the controversies that now surround him – as the first national political leader to genuinely identify and engage with their needs. Pheu Thai supporters have extended a similar welcome to Thaksin’s youngest sister, business executive and political initiate Yingluck Shinawatra, as the party’s lead candidate for prime minister.

The respective Democrat and Pheu Thai campaign rhetoric is predictably divided on certain issues, including the parties’ approaches to national economic management and political reconciliation following the May 2010 political violence. The Democrats cite the national economic recovery as evidence of their able stewardship of the economy, while Pheu Thai insists that the economic vision, leadership, and empathy of its rivals do not extend beyond urban elites. The Democrats likewise point to the institutional steps taken to understand and determine responsibility for the May 2010 violence, while Pheu Thai insists that the sum of their efforts amounts to nothing more than window dressing. Beyond these and other strident differences, the lines separating the rival parties have converged in nearly identical populist overtures to ordinary citizens. These appeals to the working class place Pheu Thai on familiar terrain, while the Democrats adjust to a strategy borrowed from Thaksin’s grassroots playbook and bureaucrats struggle to calculate how the nation will bear the expense of implementing whichever of the rival populist undertakings prevails at the ballot box.

Independent local public opinion polls conducted over the course of the election campaign have consistently placed Pheu Thai ahead of the Democrats. The polls acknowledge that a significant percentage of the voting population remains undecided, but stop short of projecting whether one or other party stands within reach of an outright majority of 251 or more seats on Election Day. Tradition holds that the party that wins the most seats, short of a full majority, has first right to form a coalition government through alliance with smaller political parties. While speculation abounds – and, in the closing days of the campaign, includes increasing talk of an outright Pheu Thai victory – the most widely held view among election watchers has been that the next government will be determined through a coalition arrangement. In reflecting on prospective Democrat or Pheu Thai coalitions, one can imagine the combination of historical considerations, unusual precedents, and risk assessments that must weigh in the calculus of small parties that are positioned to play a determining role in the final outcome.

Speculation was further stirred by the recent remarks of the senior army commander who, after asserting that the military would not interfere in the election, cryptically added that voters would do well to vote for “good candidates and parties” and to avoid a repeat of recent elections. The remarks have drawn criticism from some quarters and prompted debate on the prospect of blanket amnesties that Pheu Thai seemed previously ready to discuss but from which it has recently distanced itself. Observers have also asked whether the added comments indicate that military influence over electoral politics will remain a significant factor or thinly-veiled threat in post-election settlement. Will the election results stand as an expression of popular will, regardless of the outcome? Have understandings and agreements already been struck among key stakeholders that will guide the formation of the next government?

Taking stock of the combination of change and continuity in the election environment, it is arguable that the factor that most distinguishes the 2011 election campaign and the broader governance environment from past experience is a sharpening of the political understanding, values, and expectations of the Thai people. The Asia Foundation’s 2010 national public perception survey found that 93 percent of respondents of legal voting age maintained that democracy is the best form of government, while 59 percent observed that the optimal democratic government is one that is most representative of the citizenry. At the same time, respondents held little confidence in the integrity of elected Members of Parliament; believed that elected officials care little for ordinary citizens; conveyed a low sense of individual and collective political efficacy; and called for a process of national reconciliation as the route back from the brink of political chaos. By the standard of public values and expectations of this kind – from those that animate conversations in rural tea shops to those that flood the internet – campaign rhetoric rings hollow. Clearly, Thai voters face difficult choices in weighing the respective strengths and weaknesses of rival political parties and candidates that take the current electoral stage clothed in a combination of assets and liabilities, virtues and vices, and certainties and question marks. However, there is a strong sense in this election campaign that voters are clear in their understanding that Thailand’s future political settlement is not a one-off choice between old and new political orders, between rival political parties, or between traditional elite-guided democracy and a more broadly inclusive model of governance that takes greater account of citizen views and expectations.

The international community joins the people of Thailand in their hope for a free, fair, and credible election; a spirit of thoughtful dialogue, sensitivity, and compromise among all stakeholders as the results are confirmed; and trust and confidence in the will of the electorate.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at kmcquay@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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