Thailand’s Tectonic Political Shift – Analysis


By William J Jones and Douglas L Rhein

The era of Thailand’s colour-coded politics ended with Thaksin Shinawatra’s triumphant return. Under the shifting landscape of Thailand’s political system, this new chapter in Thai politics will be one of political contest between reform and maintaining the status quo.

In the May 2023 Thai general election, the Move Forward Party (MFP) came in first with 151 seats out of 500 and garnered over 14 million votes. Yet, its bid for the Premiership was blocked due to the presence of 250 military-appointed senators.

The MFP won seats in all regions, taking the entire province of Phuket in the South and nearly all seats in Bangkok. The Pheu Thai Party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra fell short of achieving its expected ‘landslide’ victory, coming second with nearly 11 million votes.

Thailand’s six largest conservative parties collectively won 182 seats with 16 million votes. The provincial party Bhumjaithai took the lead with approximately five million votes. This starkly contrasts with the 2019 election, where Palang Pracharath received the largest number of votes, around 8.4 million, and the conservative coalition collectively accumulated approximately 22 million votes.

Most striking is the collapse of support for Thailand’s longstanding conservative elite parties that have ruled for almost a decade. The decline in support for conservative parties in Thailand is most visible in the drop in votes for the Democrat Party. In 2011, they captured 34 per cent of the vote, amassing 11 million votes prior to the coup in 2014. Their performance in 2023 significantly deteriorated, garnering only 2 million votes and winning 25 seats.

This political transition is due to the near collapse of Thailand’s oldest establishment party, historic voter turnout for the progressive MFP and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s return to Thailand after 15 years.

With the near implosion of the Democrat Party coupled with the diminishing influence of former prime minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and former deputy prime minister General Prawit Wongsuwon, the Thai Raksa Chart and Palang Pracharath parties may fragment by the next election.

As over half of the 75 members of parliament (MPs) from these parties originally defected from Pheu Thai, they may return home under Thaksin and Pheu Thai’s patronage. Rumours indicate that during parliamentary voting, a benefactor injected significant funds for these party’s MPs, influencing their vote against the party leader and towards the new Pheu Thai Prime Minister, Srettha Thavisin.

The other major group of MPs are former Democrat defectors from Thailand’s South, who will likely align themselves with Bhumjaitai and Anutin in the next election. With Prayut and Prawit fading from power, no powerful financial supporter has enough resources to keep this many MPs within their fold.

Pheu Thai will likely assume its natural place on the Thai political spectrum as a significant centre-right force alongside Bhumjaitai, a strong provincial right-leaning party. The Democrats may survive but are essentially a memory.

An ironic and unintended outcome is that the greatest benefactor of Thai elite post-election activities will likely be the MFP.

The MFP will establish a strong position in the opposition, where they have been extremely effective over the previous four years. They have succeeded by transforming previously socio-economic issues into political issues. Comparing the MFP’s previous four years in opposition to the Democrats, the contrast is striking. The MFP managed to push controversial issues further than the Democrats managed to in 40 years. This is evident from the MFP’s submission of numerous proposed laws upon opening the parliamentary session.

The MFP will continue mainstreaming same-sex marriage, ending military conscriptionending liquor monopolies, exposing government corruption and addressing Chinese mafia operations in Thailand.

The MFP will likely receive abundant ammunition for targeting the government over corruption, cronyism and failed election promises. This will provide numerous opportunities to highlight the MFP’s core goals of demilitarisation, reducing monopolies and promoting decentralisation. The resulting media spotlight will likely benefit the MFP, strengthening its role as the opposition, garnering greater social support and broadening its voter base. This base will be reinforced by additional defectors from Pheu Thai who recognise that their party no longer represents the rural masses.

Without adjusting their stance on key electoral policies that endanger elite interests, the military, judiciary and existing institutional mechanisms will persist in removing influential obstacles. To maintain political influence, the MFP must develop a broad base of supporters across urban and rural constituencies, who can step up in elections or parliament when their predecessors are incarcerated. The MFP cannot risk becoming a party reliant on personalities. It must remain a party of values with a clear policy platform and a willingness to face challenges.

While the colour-coded politics frequently pitted Bangkok elites against rural forces, the new battleground in the Thai political sphere centres on reform versus the status quo. This is reflected in MFP’s refusal to adjust its stance regarding its reform agenda and its readiness for further conflict. With rising personal and public debt and social discontent regarding existing corruption, the next election appears to be the MFP’s to lose.

About the authors:

  • William J Jones is Assistant Professor at Mahidol University International College.
  • Douglas Lee Rhein is Associate Professor at Mahidol University International College.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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