Thailand 2011

A general election was held in Thailand on July 3, 2011. All 500 seats in Thailand’s lower house, the House of Representatives were up for grabs. 375 were elected in single-member constituencies through FPTP while the remaining 125 were elected through party-list proportional representation in multi-member regional constituencies. My preview post tells you all you need to know to grasp the basic of Thai politics.

The election saw a massive victory for the Pheu Thai party of Yingluck Shinawatra, the 43-year old sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial dominating figure of Thai politics since 2001 who has spent most of the past five years in exile since his 2006 overthrow in a military coup. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai, the third incarnation of Thaksin’s original TRT party, won an overall majority and easily defeated Abhisit Vejjajiva’s governing Democrat Party. The Thaksinites are a populist movement known for its social and welfare policies, but hated by the governing elites who see him as a corrupt authoritarian demagogue. The Thaksinites see the governing monarchist elites as ultra-conservative authoritarian reactionaries. Objectively, Thailand is not a black-white situation with the good people and the bad people (but then, are there any black-white situation in politics?). More objectively, the best attitude towards Thai politicians is that they all suck.

Results vary from site to site, and I don’t speak Thai but roughly 95% of votes have been counted. I could have waited a bit more to post this, but I felt like doing this before leaving for vacation. Turnout is reported to be 75% (or 71% or maybe even 66%), down from the 85.38% turnout in the last election, held in 2007. Here are the results, compared to standings at dissolution:

Pheu Thai winning 265 seats (204 FPTP, 61 PR) [+76]
Democrat winning 159 seats (115 FPTP, 44 PR) [-14]
Bhumjaithai Party winning 34 seats (29 FPTP, 5 PR) [+2]
Chartthaipattana Party winning 19 seats (15 FPTP, 4 PR) [-6]
Palung Chon winning 7 seats (6 FPTP, 1 PR) [+7]
Chart Pattana Puea Pandin winning 7 seats (5 FPTP, 2 PR) [-34]
Rak Thailand winning 4 seats (4 PR) [+4]
Matubhum winning 2 seats (1 FPTP, 1 PR) [-1]
Rak Santi winning 1 seat (1 PR) [+1]
New Democrat winning 1 seat (1 PR) [+1]
Mahachon Party winning 1 seat (1 PR) [+1]

 

The Nation has a nice slightly outdated graphic here.

I haven’t found percentage vote counts, but my rough calculations for the list vote are: PT 45.2%, Democrats 33%, BJT 3.8%, Rak Thailand 2.8%, CTP 2.6%, Puea Pandin 1.5% with all others winning less than 1% of the list vote. On the 2007 list vote, which was quite different from the FPTP vote (like this year), the Democrats won 39.6% against 39.6% for the PPP (PT predecessor), 5.6% for Puea Pandin and 4.4% for Chart Thai (CTP predecessor). Small personality cult based parties with regional strongholds like the BJT or the CTP do much better in the constituency vote.

Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, the latest incarnation of the Thaksinite populist movement, won a significant victory. While perhaps it is not quite a landslide, the PT’s ability to win an absolute majority makes this victory all the more significant. With 263 seats, 12 more than an absolute majority, it theoretically has won the ability to govern on its own without resorting to unreliable support from Thailand’s plethora of venal corrupt third parties and personality cults. But this is Thailand, and stuff is never that simple. The first thing to note is that while these elections have seen the majority change from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s conservative Democrats to the populist ‘left-wing’ Pheu Thai, Thailand remains a very polarized country. Outside the parties, one of the the country’s two large popular movements: the Thaksinite UDD red-shirts and the reactionary monarchist PAD yellow-shirts, is prone to fight the government. The second thing is of course that the military, which has played a key role in Thai politics since 1932, will be unhappy with these results. For the second time since the 2006 coup where it stepped in to overthrow Thaksin, its preferred option has been soundly defeated at the polls by the party it hates. The political and business elites of Thailand, who side with the military when it comes to politics, has also been defeated for the umpteenth time at the polls.

The military overthrew Thaksin in a coup in 2006 and played a key role in bringing down Thaksinite governments (either through judicial, legislative or other means) in 2008 when they finally were able to help place Abhisit in power. The military has said (again) that they’re finished with politics and won’t stage a coup, but the Thai military apparently makes a living out of lying about such stuff. While the time is past for coups and that kind of stuff – the military probably knows that staging a coup to prevent the uncontested winners of a fair election to gain power (the 2006 election, held shortly before the coup, was not as fair – so they had an excuse) is not a good idea and risks creating unprecedented chaos in the country by aggravating the UDD’s anger. However, the military isn’t for that matter going to sit back and play toy soldiers while letting the Thaksinites go along their business. Plan A for them – lobbying the venal parties to back Abhisit if PT didn’t win a majority – is closed. It’s hard to say what Plan B is, but it probably either includes backing the yellow-shirts and trying to bring down the PT (likely by having the court say they cheated in the election) or, more radically, a coup. The PT includes a good number of UDD leaders, who were gunned down last year by the military during the bloody repression (91 dead) of the UDD’s protest wave in Bangkok. Some of those UDD members who are now PT stalwarts are probably holding grudges and seeking pay back for that and the 2006 coup. The PT’s thinly concealed rhetoric about amnesty (both for friends and rivals, officially) is also going to cause concern with the military as that might mean that Thaksin’s 2-year jail sentence (handed down in absentia) will be cleared and allow for him to return from Dubai.

It might surprise some that a wealthy businesswoman with no political experience of her own managed to win an absolute majority and defeat a sitting Prime Minister with lots of political experience. In addition, the Democrats were abandoning economic conservatism in favour of the Thaksinite populist distributive approach by promising various goodies, spending sprees and other stuff designed to cut into the PT’s base. Finally, despite rising inflation (4.2% in May, up from 3.4% in 2010) and signs of a small decline in economic growth, Thailand’s economy remains strong: the stock exchange remains one of Asia’s strongest, the baht is strong, foreign investors are optimistic and Thai society is increasingly affluent and materialistic. Economic growth is projected to hit 4.3% in 2011. The Democrats could even play the card of being the party of stability against the red-shirt rioters.

The reasons for Yingluck’s victory lay in her skills and a series of mistakes by Abhisit. Yingluck was a unusual choice for the PT’s leadership, and could be seen as a real proxy for her big brother. But she proved that she had real talent and skills all throughout her campaign. Backed by a strong team of advisers and consultants, Yingluck firstly played on her looks, her charisma and her smooth talking to appeal to voters. Unlike other fiery populists who yell into microphones, Yingluck was always calm and composed on the campaign trail. In addition, Yingluck had all the good messages. Her campaign was positive and stayed clear of revengeful talk, hard rhetoric or anything which might scare people away. She never went into specifics but promised goodies such as free laptops, 25% wage hikes, big spending projects and harking back to her brother’s popular welfare and social policies. Her brother is still idolized by poor Thais in the northeast, so playing on his name (and hers too) is a good idea. Finally, she used her feminine charm to play nice on opponents (taking them off guard) and talking about reconciliation and feel-good stuff.

On the other hand, the Democrats made a series of mistakes. Perhaps the biggest one was not calling an election in 2010 after the riots, where they could have taken the UDD/PT off guard and campaigned – perhaps successfully – on how the red-shirts are evil rioters. Instead, they waited far too long and by this point Thais are not in the mood to go back to that point in time and the boost which the red-shirt riots might have given Abhisit in 2010 has backfired. That’s not to say that Abhisit didn’t talk about it – in fact most of the final days were spent violently attacking the opposition as looters, rioters and terrorists. The negative scare tactics backfired badly and turned the PT’s edge into a full blown major advantage. Secondly, Abhisit obviously failed to take advantage of decent economic numbers and instead fell victim to popular concerns about rising inequalities (the economic recovery was favourable to the pro-Abhisit elites in general), economic slowdown and rising inflation (leading to rising food prices). Thirdly, Abhisit clearly lacked the charm which Yingluck had. Being British-born and Oxford educated, he has always looked awkward on the stump and this year was no different. He had trouble appealing to voters and embracing them in the way which Yingluck is so great at doing. He struggled at not looking aloof and elitist.

Thailand remains a very polarized country as the map above shows. The first shows the results of the FPTP vote, provinces being shaded according to the percentage of provincial constituencies won by each party. All 90%+ shades in this case mean that the party won all the seats. The map, however, is not sized according to the population of each province or shaded based on popular vote results. The second map shows the result of the list votes in Thailand’s five provinces. The polarization is clear. The PT swept the Isan region (northeast), which is the stronghold of Thaksinite parties. They won 104 seats against 13 for the BJT and a mere 4 for the Democrats. They also won the north with 45 seats against 12 for the Democrats. These are the two poorest regions, and Isan is mostly populated by the Isan people who speak Isan – a Lao dialect though nowadays close to Thai. The Democrats performed strongly in northern Thai provinces bordering Burma – these regions are ethnically Karen and not northern Thai. Central Thailand is the battleground region, which went Democrat overall in 2007 but split 45-26 for PT this year. It is worth noting that a lot of Bangkok suburban provinces are poor and inhabited by Isan immigrants. Bangkok split 23-10 for the Democrats, with the PT winning all but one of those 10 seats in the capital’s eastern outskirts (which are poorer). Finally, the south confirmed its allegiance to the Democrats: the governing party won all but 3 of the region’s 53 seats while the PT won no seats there.

Among the smaller parties, the BJT performed strongly in Khmer political boss’ Newin Chidchob’s native Buriram province but surprisingly saw its support spread out in central Thailand while not doing all that well in the other Khmer provinces. One would gather a lot of the BJT’s support is personality based. The conservative CTP again performed strongly in the Suphan Buri stronghold of its boss Barnharn and in central Thailand. The venal corrupt CTP is conservative and elitist, but is the epitome of political opportunism. Despite being in government now, it has embraced the PT and will likely form a coalition with them. Palung Chon, a new party led by Chon Buri province political boss Sonthaya Khunpleum won all of its 6 FPTP seats in that province. Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, a party merging a larger Thaksinite splitoff with a smaller government party suffered badly. Interestingly, something not picked up anywhere else, a lot of PT gains came at the expense of Puea Pandin while the Democrats themselves only lost 14 seats overall from dissolution. Further indication that Thailand remains very polarized. Rak Thailand, a new personality cult led by corrupt brothel king Chuwit Kamolvisit, won 4 seats and apparently this pleased the “anti-graft” brothel king very much. Matubhum, the party of 2006 coupist general Sonthi Boonyaratglin won 1 seat in Pattani province – a Muslim province in the far-south (Sonthi is Muslim). Rak Santi, a party led by former interior minister Purachai Piumsombun (‘Mr. Clean’, apparently one of the few honest politicians in the country) won only one PR seat.

Thailand remains in a difficult situation, wracked by political unrest and polarization which is due to continue only this time led by another group (the PAD). For all of Yingluck’s talk of reconciliation, the PAD hates her and the military can’t conceal its hatred for Thaksinites. If she moves too quickly towards amnesty (aka, bringing big bro’ back to Bangkok), this will anger the military and PAD and condemn the country to violence and the possibility of a coup or other sort of military intrigue. If the aggressive UDD leaders now elected PT MPs are revengeful and seek payback for 2006/2010, the military and PAD is due to hate that. Since the 2006 coup, Thailand has had five Prime Ministers. Despite winning the 2007 election (albeit with no majority), the Thaksinites ruled for only one year. The cards don’t exactly stack up towards Yingluck lasting out the legislature’s four-year term. The military is only lying when it says that it’s done with politics. Reality is that they hate the Thaksinites and won’t swallow this defeat easily. They’re not in any position right now to prevent the PT from even acceding to power, but they are in a long-term position to play games with them with the goal of throwing them out. Thailand is certainly going to be an interesting place worth following in the near future, but it would be quite a miracle (or pipe dream) if there was indeed reconciliation and moves towards real liberal democracy in Thailand.

Economically, investors worry about rising inflation and the effects that the PT’s spending spree policies will have on inflation. But investors aren’t worried – after all, Thailand is something of a miraculous enigma in that its political unrest since 2006 hasn’t really affected its economy. Furthermore, both Democrats and PT are pro-business parties and keep the investors happy in their corner.

On a final note, happy Independence Day to all American readers. The US remains this blog’s top visitor with over 5400 visits from the US since February this year. Thank you!

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Posted on July 4, 2011, in Thailand. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Fantastic introduction to Thai politics. From what I gather, they seem at the same time quite interesting and horribly depressing. Let’s see how the situation will evolve.

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