Pro-military party scores another coup as Thaksin’s grip weakens
Thailand’s election is almost over with 90 per cent reporting and surprises abound as the pro-military Phalang 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.
Democrats’ silver lining?
Long billing themselves as the historical saviours of Thai democracy, the Democrat Party has become the unwanted, middle-of-the-road outfit that stands for nothing and is appealing to none.
The Democrats will need to take a long hard look at themselves after coming behind several other parties including the upstart Future Forward. Before placing blame on others, or Thaksin (as they tend to do for anything and everything), the Democrats might want to check their track record over the past two decades to figure out what went wrong.
They can start by looking at how they came to power in 2008 despite not winning the majority of seats and how they were able to form a government after the Constitutional Court disbanded and red-carded their rivals. A legitimate party would have probably called for elections, but the Democrats clung on for another three years.
We can also look at the crackdown in 2010, when Abhisit Vejjajiva refused to resign and ordered a military operation against protesters (a few of whom were armed, most of whom were not) in the middle of Bangkok leading to the deaths of almost 100 people.
We can talk about how Abhisit has had over 15 years to reorganise his party, to get rid of the old guard, to infuse new blood or, at the very 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 yellow shirt protests of 2013-14 that ushered in the military coup, how Abhisit and Chuan Leekpai stood on a stage in downtown Bangkok alongside people who 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 Democrats’ Faustian bargain has ended the way we expected, not with a bang but a whimper.
Perhaps the silver lining is that the party has no excuses not to reinvent and reorganise itself. A lot of younger members are still loyal to the party and if they can secure it for themselves, perhaps the Democrats can be a force once again.
Pheu Thai needs a Thaksin solution
What seems clear from talking to voters around the country is that more people voted against Pheu Thai than voted for Phalang Pracharat.
There is definitely a Catch-22 to the Thaksin conundrum facing the party. On one hand their base of support still absolutely adores him 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 reorganise and reinvent as well, though to a lesser degree than the Democrats. Many of its supporters see Chadchart Sittipunt, the deputy party leader and prime minister nominee, 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 new way
Predictions that Thailand’s first-time and under-30 voters would play a crucial role have proved accurate. 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 Parliament for the first time. Rather than the tried and tested method of running and “buying” local political families, Future Forward ran for election 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 contests means that younger Thais are finally embracing a third way beyond the conservative-vs-Thaksin divide.
The Uncle Tu brand is strong
What should be recognised in Phalang Pracharat’s victory is the strength of the Prayut Chan-o-cha brand. Yes he seized power illegally in 2014, yes he helped lead the deadly crackdown against protesters in 2010, yes his government has been repressive and has used legal and extra-legal measures to ensure its continued rule – but to a large section of the Thai population he is a saviour.
The plain-speaking general with avuncular mannerisms is a core reason why Phalang Pracharat won as many seats as they did and his political capital cannot be discounted now or in the future. Prayut Chan-o-cha has a strong political brand.