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New Faces, New Chapter in Thai Politics

March 27, 2019

By Thomas Parks

Thailand’s March 24 parliamentary election is still playing out, and uncertainty about the results is likely to continue for weeks. At the time of this post, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has announced a preliminary tally giving the Pheu Thai Party 135 seats, or 38.6 percent, and the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) 98 seats, or 28 percent (see election map here). In a major surprise, the PPRP won nearly half a million more votes than Pheu Thai, the first time in 20 years that Pheu Thai or its predecessor parties have not won the popular vote. The ECT has 60 days to confirm the final results, and members of the upper house—who will be selected, not elected, according to the current constitution—will not be determined until next month, meaning the vote for prime minister may not occur until mid-May. We will be waiting awhile longer.

Photo/Sek Samyan – Shutterstock.com

The media and election-monitoring groups have raised several legitimate concerns that have undermined the credibility of the outcome in the eyes of many Thai citizens and emboldened opponents of the current government. While the vote itself was relatively smooth, counting and reporting has been surprisingly chaotic. The announcement of results has been postponed several times, leading many to raise suspicions of vote-count manipulation. While there is no direct evidence to corroborate these accusations, the delays certainly give the impression of poor management and communication by the ECT.

According to the Asian Network for Free Elections, the only major international election-monitoring group to field observers, the election had several serious technical and management problems, though these are unlikely to affect the end result. Several parties are raising concerns about irregularities, but these issues will take weeks to investigate. A massive petition is in the works to remove the ECT commissioners. It seems that many Thais are frustrated with the conduct of this election.

A critical stage of the process is now beginning, as the two largest parties pursue rival efforts to form a governing coalition.

So, what is new about this election? Have Thai politics changed? Memories of political chaos cast a long a shadow over Sunday’s vote—massive street protests by red-shirts and yellow-shirts, occupations of government buildings, military coups, and political brinksmanship that paralyzed government for more than a decade. Have we moved beyond the days of polarized, red-yellow politics?

New faces, new parties

Probably the most exciting aspect of this election was the emergence of new faces and new parties. The new Future Forward Party was a breakaway success, with nearly 6 million votes and 87 seats making them the third-largest party. Led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, FFP captivated millions of young people and urban voters with a progressive, anti-establishment message that provides a serious alternative to Pheu Thai. Despite their lack of a political machine, FFP managed to win all over the country with a strategy centered on social media. FFP won constituencies in the East (Trat and Chantaburi), the Northeast (Khon Kaen), the North (Chiang Rai and Phrae), and the Central Region (Bangkok, Samut Sakhon, Nakhom Pathom, Chacheongsao, and Phitsanulok).

Photo/Kan Sangtong – Shutterstock.com

If FFP does well in parliament, it could build a truly national constituency of progressive voters that spans rural and urban regions. This could help propel important issues like inequality beyond the traditional urban-rural divide and lead to real progress on critical reforms.

In the Muslim-majority Deep South, a new party has emerged, though with many familiar faces. The Prachachat Party won six of 11 seats in the southernmost provinces and is well positioned to become a strong voice for peace and reform in this troubled region. Party leaders include two prominent former government officials with historical ties to Pheu Thai and its predecessor parties, former interior minister Wan Muhammad Nor Matha and police colonel Thawee Sodsong, former head of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center. With an executive board of prominent Muslim leaders, there is some optimism that this new party will change the trajectory of conflict in the region.

Finally, there is the new PPRP. As the heir of the current government, and with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha as its sole candidate for the top job, PPRP does not seem like a new face on the surface. But its emergence as the second-largest party in terms of seats, and the largest in total votes, with nearly 8 million, has reshaped the electoral map, displacing the Democrat Party and other center-right parties. It seems that many former Democrat voters saw the current prime minister as more likely to deliver stability and gradual reforms.

Moving beyond red and yellow

The people associated with the red-shirt and yellow-shirt protests of the past decade fared much worse than in previous elections, especially on the yellow side. The Democrat Party, which was closely associated with the yellow-shirts, lost nearly all of its previous strongholds in Bangkok and surrounding regions. The Action Coalition for Thailand, led by a former yellow-shirt leader and Democrat deputy prime minister, won just a handful of seats. This election result, and the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the convictions of yellow-shirt leaders who occupied Government House in 2008, seem to presage the end of a political movement that sowed chaos and undermined elected governments from 2005 to 2014.

The retreat on the red side is subtler, but the direction seems clear. While the Pheu Thai party maintains its strongholds in the Northeastern Region, the new proportional representation system has reduced the party’s dominance. Red-shirt leaders were not included on the Pheu Thai candidate list, and their former leaders are plagued by ongoing legal troubles.

It is too early to tell whether the days of massive street protests are behind us. But the signs are hopeful that the red vs. yellow saga may be relegated to history.

Photo/Wadee Deeprawat

Coalitions will bring compromises

Finally, the new system of proportional representation has ensured that no single party can dominate the electoral landscape. For the foreseeablefuture, Thai governments are likely to be formed by coalitions, forcing the major parties to compromise on policies and leadership as they did not do under previous electoral systems. Already, Pheu Thai has publicly suggested supporting the leader of a smaller party for prime minister—Anutin Charnvirakul of the Phumjaithai Party—in exchange for forming a coalition. PPRP has significant incentives to form a broad coalition as well. Even with its advantage from the upper house role in electing the prime minister—which effectively means that PPRP may need as few as 126 seats in the lower house to win the PM vote, compared to 376 for Pheu Thai—PPRP needs to attract enough parties to raise its vote count to 251 to achieve a majority in the lower house. Without a majority, a PPRP government would face enormous difficulties in governing, including the inability to pass a budget and the ever-present possibility of a no-confidence vote.

Consensus on addressing inequality

After years of intense political debate over “populist policies,” this election has seen the emergence of a broad consensus on the need to address inequality in Thailand. Nearly every major-party platform, including the PPRP’s, included specific plans to improve the lives of people in the poorest regions of the country. The foundation is now in place for serious policy discussions on this critical issue (more on this next month, after we release a major study on this topic).

While we are still awaiting clarity on the outcome of the election, there is already evidence that Thai politics have changed in profound ways. Political divisions have not disappeared, and the problems with counting and reporting the vote have damaged the credibility of the electoral process. But there are also new faces, new messages, and potential avenues for cooperation that could lead to a different form of politics in the future. While the next government may give the appearance of continuity, the ground is shifting, with major implications for future elections and governments.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at thomas.parks@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Thailand
Related programs: Elections
Related topics: Thai Elections

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