Things we’ve learned so far from the election campaign
With a month to go, election posters and key political developments are telling us a lot about what to expect. Signs of things to come are everywhere, if you know where to look. Here’s what’s been seen so far on the streets and in the media:
1. National polarisation has not yet featured. But it will. And when it does, nothing else will matter much. Thailand’s recent general elections and the last Bangkok mayoral poll were dominated by the bitter political divide, which has little to do with pressing national issues like poor education, global competitiveness and a justice system apparently balanced in favour of the rich and against the poor.
2. The “real” corruption issue is missing from campaign posters. We have seen brave promises, including vows to freeze military spending and to end employees’ contribution to pension funds, but no election poster has been bold enough to declare a zero-tolerance policy for party members caught in graft scandals. This is important, because Thai politicians are second to none when it comes to scrutinising their enemies, but the country languishes in the bottom half of the global transparency index due to their utter failure to take action against corruption occurring “on the same side”.
3. Four parties are battling for supremacy in Bangkok. Phalang Pracharat seems to have an edge in the hub of what were massive anti-Shinawatra protests preceding the 2014 coup. Traditional Bangkok rulers the Democrats will struggle, not least because of their leader Abhisit Vejjajiva’s ambiguity concerning the military and the Shinawatras. Pheu Thai, which has a sizeable support base in the capital, will be hoping to take advantage of an anti-Thaksin vote split between the Democrats and Palang Pracharat. Future Forward, projecting itself as an alternative to the Democrats, will end up fighting its ally, Pheu Thai, for pro-Thaksin and anti-military votes.
4. “Swing” parties like Bhumjaithai are keeping their cards close, refusing to reveal what voters want to know most – which side they will join. Up until Princess Ubolratana’s dramatic nomination for PM, the “neutral” or swing parties appeared to enjoy huge bargaining power. Now, it will take a very bold move to join the Thai Raksa Chart Party, since doing so would carry serious political and legal risk. In other words, although these parties are giving nothing away regarding their future plans, voters may no longer need to know as much.
5. The media have taken sides. Which is not necessarily deplorable. It’s better to have media outlets fighting one another than to have them all singing the same tune. The social media, however, will play a bigger role in this election than ever before. In Thailand’s divisive atmosphere, though, posts that are shared or go viral are more likely to reinforce, rather than change, ideas or impressions.
6. It looks like we Thais will get more of the same. There have been some strong election vows, but make no mistake, this election is not about solving the man on the street’s problems. Votes on March 24 will be ammunition for political rivals to settle old scores, and the outcome is unlikely to be final. Thailand’s political seat of power is like Jerusalem, with rivals taking turns in control.
7. Escaping the vicious circle requires public intervention. Of course, this election is not really about the voters, who are simply being sucked into something that really does not matter much to them. Thais may need to be a little more “selfish”, taking control of future elections and making the real issues about the minimum wage, taxation and education policies. In the next few weeks, farmers and students will be given forums to voice their demands, but what they say is unlikely to have any bearing on who will be agriculture minister or education minister after the election.
8. For all the sweet promises, don’t expect any echo of the news from Japan this week: “Olympics Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada has publicly apologised after arriving three minutes late to a parliamentary meeting on Thursday. [My emphasis.] Opposition MPs said his tardiness showed disrespect for his office and boycotted a meeting of the budget committee for five hours in protest.”
Writer’s note: Of course, the final item has nothing to do with the Thai election campaign, but it represents a standard we should be aiming for. In Thailand, the senior-most person arrives the latest at meetings without fail. Traditional it may be, but this mindset fosters much bigger problems. It leads to undeserved privileges in the legal system, for instance, which turn into an imbalance of justice and corrosive rich-poor inequality – which is our most destructive national problem. Will the upcoming election correct that? Let’s just say we haven’t seen any positive signs.