Division and conflict in Thai society this time is too deep for the tradition of secret deals among the elite to mend. The elements of the conflict include social class, economic interest and political ideology.
On the surface, it is clearly a political conflict between two major camps – the ruling Pheu Thai Party on one side and the opposition Democrat Party on the other.
On top of the social structure, conservative royalists are worried about changes in Thailand – changes that might take authority from them. They are desperately seeking a smooth transition of the reigning power. The capitalist elite are also making major decisions about which side they should rely on.
On the ground, the political landscape has dramatically changed in recent decades. This change is dynamic and powerful, and shaking up the entire society, as well as requiring a large political platform to accommodate it.
Recent research by Thammasat University economist Apichat Satitniramai suggested that socio-economic development over the past two decades has created a new social class, dubbed the “neo-middle class”. Its members have different characteristics from the established middle class, which comprises those who’ve benefited from economic development since the 1960s.
In short, the neo-middle class could be earning Bt5,000-Bt10,000 in monthly income, mostly from farming, the service sector and self-employment. They belong to 40 per cent of total households in Thailand. They are not the poorest. They have a middle level education, not higher than bachelor degree. Of course, they have needs and aspirations. They are migrating back and forth between the capital or suburbs and their home villages in provinces across the entire country, but are mostly from the North and Northeast.
Politically speaking, the established middle class in the capital and urban areas are people who subscribe to the “yellow-shirt political idea” to maintain a social hierarchy with the monarchy at the top. They are rich and have the ability to access national resources easily, as they have strong connections with the elite.
The neo-middle class, meanwhile, is connecting with political parties. Electoral politics is the only window of opportunity for them to access the national resources. Populist policies such as village funds, free healthcare services as well as farm-product subsidies are just a few of many channels for them to benefit from economic development.
Political parties like Pheu Thai and others in the Shinawatra family’s camp managed to get support from the neo-middle class, since they could deliver economic benefits to them. A political party might get loyalty from this group as long as it is able to deliver – otherwise voters will turn to others.
That is the reason many people in this country are calling for an election, no matter how difficult it would be, while the other group has chosen street battles to destroy the election and try to make sure the election does not divert more resources to the new class.
The Thai elite are used to settling conflict behind the scenes among themselves. Such methods might have worked during the 1960-1970 period when political space was limited only to the established elite and a small group of urban middle-class people.
This time might be different. Deals behind the scenes among the elite, as many are suggesting, could not settle this deep conflict. Thailand now needs a solution that can accommodate all stakeholders in the country.
Indeed, the election is the only solution that could offer a transparent, free and fair negotiating forum for all. There is no need to look for another way; rather, an all-out effort is needed to make the election possible.