Election Preview: Thailand 2011
A general election will be held in Thailand on July 3, 2011. All 500 seats in Thailand’s lower house, the House of Representatives, will be up for reelection. 375 of the House’s 500 members will be elected in single-member constituencies by FPTP, while the remaining 125 seats are elected by party-list proportional representation in multi-member regional constituencies which include several provinces. This is the first general election since December 2007.
As everybody should know, Thai politics is extremely polarized and extremely violent. It is prone to coups, massive popular movements or brutal crackdowns of demonstrations. Basically, Thai politics pits two sides against one another: on one hand, the Thaksinites or red-shirts (they could also be called the ‘populists’ or ‘anti-establishment’ side); on the other the incumbent government, the elites, the military, the monarchy and/or the yellow shirts. The dominating controversial figure at the heart of this system – Thaksin Shinawatra – hasn’t lived in Thailand in 2006, but he’s the controversial love-hate figure behind this political crisis, enduring since at least 2006. This election preview post will attempt a rundown of who’s who and what’s what as a sort of very basic primer to confusing Thai politics. This probably won’t make it any less confusing, and at any rate it’s a very rapid cursory overview of who’s who and what’s what.
Thaksin Shinawatra is a wealthy former businessman who became Prime Minister in 2001 at the helm of the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, or TRT) party. Thaksin, who ruled until his 2006 ouster, became one of the longest ruling Thai civilian politicians in recent history. At the root of his success is a vastly successful populist platform and economic policy, which included offering the first universal health care scheme to poor Thais. His party became vastly popular with poor Thais in northeastern Thailand, but his opponents accused him of authoritarianism, human rights violation, corruption and tax evasion. His rather rebellious attitude towards Thailand’s sacrosanct monarchy also won him the hatred of hardcore monarchists. Protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the yellow-shirts, a group of conservative ultra-nationalist monarchists with fascist inklings, led to Thaksin’s ouster by a military coup in September 2006. The heavily politicized military, which sees itself as the guardian of the monarchy, was the other heavyweight non-parliamentary opponent of Thaksin’s regime. The military banned the TRT, wrote a new constitution and finally called elections for December 2007.
Unfortunately for them, the people didn’t vote as they wished they would. The reincarnated TRT, branded PPP and led by former military officer Samak Sundaravej – a Thaksin proxy – won the elections and formed a government with smaller allies. What happened next is a long story which I don’t fully grasp the details of but the basic rundown is as follows: the PAD regrouped, led huge protests, courts found Samak guilty of conflict of interest and forced him out, Thaksin’s brother-in-law became PM in September 2008, protests led by the PAD got increasingly violent in the next two months, the courts dissolved the PPP and forced the PM to resign. The opposition leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, put together a governing coalition with a lot of old venal PPP “allies”.
Abhisit Vejjajiva hails from the Democrat Party, an old liberal-conservative monarchist party which has played the role of liberal opposition to past military regimes but since 2001 is regarded as the party of Thailand’s wealthy conservative economic elites based in Bangkok. The Democrats are close to the monarchy, opposed Thaksin as an authoritarian revolutionary crook and broadly represent the economic and political elites of the country against the Thaksinite “popular masses” (a crude and inaccurate misrepresentation, to say the least). Abhisit himself is Oxford-educated, for example. His government has weathered the economic crisis relatively well and his economic politics showed a heavy Thaksinite influence with generous public spending and social spending schemes. Abhisit’s government has strictly upheld Thai lèse majesté laws, which, alongside other moves, led Freedom House to downgrade Thailand’s media freedom ranking to ‘not free’. Most significantly, however, he faced the violent opposition of Thaksin’s motivated supporters, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) or red-shirts. The UDD’s protests proved as violent as the PAD’s, leading to a brutal military crackdown of the UDD by the military in 2010 which resulted in over 90 deaths.
This year, the Thaksinites are the Pheu Thai Party (PT). Thaksin was tried and condemned to two years in jail in absentia, and has lived in Dubai since 2007. But he’s still the big boss of the PT, and earlier this year he was the one who installed his sister, the 43-year old businesswoman Yingluck Shinawatra, whom Thaksin has described as his “clone”. The move raised eyebrows, partly because Yingluck herself has no prior political experience albeit she is from a heavily politicized family. But in this campaign she’s proven to be far better than anyone could expect and has gathered the ‘big mo’. She has taken a rather conciliatory tone, saying that she does not seek revenge for the coup and downplays talks that her brother would return to take the reigns (probably unofficially) if she wins. Her platform soundbites (free tablet PCs for kids, raising the minimum wage) are hammered incessantly in a successful way, and her experienced campaign team has played heavily on her energy, youthfulness, large smile and good looks. She has taken the Democrats off guard, with Abhisit still struggling to play the role of a modern campaigner as he tries not to look as aloof as in the past. At any rate, the Democrats have also adopted a large part of winning Thaksinite economic creed promising to raise the minimum wage and going on a little spending rush before calling the election.
We are told incessantly that Thailand is about red-yellow politics and that it’s all extremely polarized, but venal political machines devoid of any ideology play a huge role in Thai politics. They were the ones who gave the Thaksinites government in 2008, and then a few months later gave it back to the Democrats by switching sides. There are a handful of smaller parties, almost exclusively personality-based. Here’s a rundown of the main ones, which will prove crucial if the PT falls short of a majority.
The Bhumjaithai Party (BJT) holds 32 seats and is Abhisit’s largest junior ally. The BJT is the successor of the banned Neutral Democratic Party (a TRT-like populist outfit), which won 7 seats in 2007. The largest grouping in the BJT seems to be the old PPP Friends of Newin faction, the personality cult of political boss Newin Chidchob. Newin is a venal kingmaker who is actually pretty conservative and close to the military, but is very much up for sale. Newin is the political boss of the Buriram and Surin provinces in northeastern Thailand which are ethnically Khmer. That should provide a major base for the BJT this year.
With 25 seats, the Chartthaipattana Party (Thai Nation Development Party, CP) is the second largest junior governing party and the successor of the banned conservative Chat Thai Party. Their major political boss is Banharn Silpa-archa, who is less powerful than Newin because his party is bigger but still has a personal fiefdom in Suphanburi province.
Then you have, also in government, the 8-seat Rum Chart Pattana Party, the 5-seat Social Action Party and the 3-seat Matubhum Party. The latter is a Muslim-based party led by former coupist general Sonthi Boonyaratglin (who is a Muslim).
Alongside the PT in opposition is the Motherland or Puea Pandin Party, which is similar to the TRT and includes, notably, former Thaksin minister Surakiart Sathirathai. The Pracharaj Party, another TRT-lite party, holds 8 seats.
The PAD founded its own new party, the New Politics Party, whose impact will be worth following. Some leading PAD members are very close to the governing Democrats, but the PAD movement as a whole is far more right-wing, nationalist and authoritarian than the Democrats. The PAD seems to oscillate between rabid nationalism (which means hating Cambodians), fascism, corporatism and reactionary monarchism.
The polarization of Thai society is also reflected on the electoral map. The Thaksin parties have a formidable impenetrable stronghold in the northeast and far north of Thailand, the country’s two poorest regions. The Democrats, on the other hand, have a formidable fief in the south of Thailand (though weaker in the Muslim far south). Central Thailand and Bangkok is generally the buffer zone between both regions, though the Democrats were slightly stronger there in 2007. It is interesting to note that northeast and far north Thailand are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the core of Thailand: northeastern Thailand is called Isan, and speaks Isan – a dialect of Lao nowadays written in Thai. Northern Thailand is not so much ethnically distinct, though the northern Thai (Thai Yuan) form a sub-group of their own alongside the central and southern Thai. Southern Thailand, with the exception of the three Muslim provinces of the far-south, is the Democrat stronghold. The southern Thai also form a separate ethnic sub-group and aren’t particularly affluent (though richer than the Isan) but what seems to make them so heavily anti-Thaksinite is some sort of regional opposition to the northeast from a region which is heavily westernized (Thailand’s main tourist resorts are located in the south) and more affluent than the Isan region.
This election is Pheu Thai’s to lose. It seems pretty certain that the PT will at least win the most seats, but the issue is whether or not they will win an outright majority on their own. Polling does not seem to indicate that they will succeed in winning a majority, but polling in Bangkok – a traditionally Democrat base – has shown the PT remarkably strong to the point that it could win – easily in fact – an overall majority. If the PT wins only a plurality, there is still the possibility that they will be denied power by a parliamentary alliance of Democrats and venal parties such as Newin’s friends, an alliance which would be supported by the army. That could discourage the red-shirts from politics, and make them look to extralegal avenues to winning power after being “cheated out” of power by politicians in 2008 and 2011. If the PT doesn’t win a majority, the venal parties would be the kingmakers, and as always they’re up for sale. Newin seems surprisingly loyal to the government for now, but if he’s offered a good deal it’s unlikely he’ll be very loyal. The CP has said that they’ll work with both sides, so it comes up to who offers the better deal. There is also the question of the military: they will be rather livid that the people haven’t voted correctly but they’ve said that they don’t plan to stage a coup if PT wins. But while it is unlikely that the army would stage a coup to prevent Yingluck from taking power, they could be rattled to take action against a PT government if Thaksin comes back or becomes the shadow leader of the country.
Housekeeping note: I’m busy for the next few days, and then I’m leaving for a week vacation in Vermont. While I hope to manage to write Thai results into a post before I do leave for Vermont, in the event that I can’t, that and other election results will wait until I return a week or so later.