Thailand’s 2019 Election, Explained

Thailand is (almost certainly) having a general election this year. With new political parties, new leaders to watch, a new constitution and a reconfigured political landscape, this election can feel complicated and quite different from polls in the past. To try to make Thai politics more accessible and the election itself easier to analyze, this is a FAQ-style piece on the general election.

When will the election be held?p

Update: The election will be held on Sunday, March 24.

The most important part of an election — the date — is yet to be scheduled. It was originally meant to be held on February 24th, 2019. Now, the Electoral Commission claims that it will not be able to complete preparations for the election time. In addition, subsequent to the setting of the election date, the palace announced that the coronation ceremony for His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn will be held in May, which may necessitate an election delay to ensure that preparation for the two major events do not clash. Elections have been delayed six times since the current military government came to power. The constitution, however, mandates that the election must be held within 150 days of electoral laws coming into effect, which would correspond with May 9th. Therefore, while the election date is still unclear, it is virtually certain that Thailand will hold an election this year. A date that has been floated is March 10th.

When was the last general election? 

The last election to successfully yield a parliament was in 2011 — eight years ago. In that election, the Pheu Thai party won a landslide victory, paving the way for Yingluck Shinawatra to become prime minister. The most recent election was in 2014, the results of which were later voided by the Constitutional Court as they were disrupted by the protests that were intent on bringing down the Yingluck government and installing an unelected ‘people’s council’. For more about this period of politics, see the final two articles of Thailand in Crisis.

Who are the main political figures to watch?

The proliferation of political parties means that there are simply too many parties and figures to be able to watch easily. Here are a number of key figures.

At center-stage is Prayut Chan-o-cha, the incumbent prime minister who took power after staging a military coup in 2014. Despite repeated denials throughout the years that he is interested in becoming a politician, he admitted last year that he was one and has hinted, not so subtly, that he wishes to remain as prime minister.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former prime minister who is now a decade out of power, remains visibly influential with Thai political figures continuing to fly to meet him abroad. The Pheu Thai party, which he supports, seems intent on nominating Sudarat Keyuraphan as their candidate for prime minister. Sudarat is seen by the party as experienced and enjoys good relations with both Thaksin and the powerful deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan. However, Chatchart Sittiphan, a former transport minister, has also declared that he is ready to become prime minister. Chatchart is a popular figure who was nicknamed ‘the strongest minister in the nation’ during his tenure.

Sudarat and Chatchart

Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva won an intense battle for re-election as leader of the Democrat Party, and thus will lead them into the election. The Democrats’ former secretary-general and firebrand protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has broken off and started a new party. While Abhisit pledges to oppose ‘dictatorship’, Suthep has been enthusiastic about supporting Prayut’s return as prime minister. The latter broke a vow not to re-enter politics to found his new party.

Thanathorn Jueangroongrueangkit is the founder of the new Future Forward Party. A liberal billionaire, he has positioned himself as a champion of the common people and progressive causes.

What will be the major issues that animate this election?

The single biggest issue that shapes this election is the question of whether or not Prayut should continue as prime minister. Prayut has never faced an electoral test — he appointed himself — and has no political party affiliation, which also means he is not running for parliament. The 2017 constitution does permit non-MPs to become prime minister if they are nominated by parliament.

Thaksin remains the elephant in the room

Of course, the divide is deeper than the question of simply who will be prime minister. First, there is the question of continued military influence in politics. Prayut remaining in Government House is a representation of an enduring victory over the forces that seek the return of Thaksin Shinawatra. In short, Thailand’s conflict has been a stalemate of two sides — an emerging poorer, provincial class versus a more affluent, urban middle class — with rough parity in power that has tried unsuccessfully to overwhelm each other. Thaksin, as detailed in The Story of Thai Democracy, was enormously popular with the rural poor and despised by the urban middle class, and even since his self-imposed exile after a corruption conviction has continued to hold enormous sway over successive Thaksin-aligned governments. Whether or not anti-Thaksin forces win this election will show whether two coups has been enough to end Thaksin’s enduring influence in Thai politics.

Secondly, the election will essentially serve as a referendum on the Prayut administration’s record. Polls have shown that the Prayut government scores well for maintaining peace and order, but that the positive impact of economic growth has not been felt due to the lopsided distribution of income. In addition, his abysmal human rights record and failure to pursue reform and anti-corruption measures has done much to dent his popularity with the public. The following table lays out some of his achievements and failures:

– Maintained peace and order after the tumultuous political conflict of the past two decades

– Sustained economic growth at 3-4% per year and exports at all-time high

– Approved numerous infrastructure mega-projects and Eastern Economic Corridor scheme

– Launched Thai Niyom and Pracharath populist schemes

– Reduced human trafficking issues in the fishing industry after an EU red flag

– Reclaimed illegally held forest lands and reduced illegal ivory sales

– Improved protection of intellectual property rights

– Launched Thailand 4.0 long-term vision

– Corruption continues to be endemic, including at the very top

– Income inequality has continued to increase

– Rising unemployment, living costs and surging household debt

– Hypocritical adoption of “Thaksinomics”, which it continues to rhetorically criticize

– Lack of promised political reform, along with lack of attempt at fostering genuine political reconciliation

– Systematic crackdown on human rights such as freedom of expression, including prosecution of 1,800 civilians in military courts

– Imbalanced approach to foreign policy and internationally embarrassing performances by the prime minister, raising doubts about ability to chair ASEAN

Prayut frequently tours the country but denies that he is campaigning

What are the main parties contesting this election?

The following table provides a summary of the alignment and ideology of the key political parties. I use ‘ideology’ with caution — Thai political parties are typically not very ideological, but wanted to provide readers with some way of differentiating the parties. For ease of understanding, I’ve also chosen to omit a number of new parties that are unlikely to be significant players.

It’s also important here to define ideological terms. I identify some parties as Thaksinite as they strongly align themselves with Thaksin Shinawatra and his brand of economic populism. Conservatism and progressivism are not to be confused with the American equivalent; conservatism is used here loosely to describe parties more aligned with the nationalist and traditionalist establishment, while progressivism means greater acceptance of disruption to the status quo.

PartyKey figuresAlignmentIdeology
Pheu ThaiSudarat Keyurapan,
Chattchart Sittipunt
Thai Raksa ChartJaturon Chaisaeng,
Preechapon Pongpanich
Palang PracharathUttom Saonayon,
Sonttirat Sonjiriwong
Action Coalition 
for Thailand
Suthep Thaugsuban Pro-Prayut
DemocratAbhisit Vejjajiva Anti-Prayut
Future ForwardThanathorn
BhumjaithaiAnutin Chanveerakul UnclearRegion-based
ChartthaipatthanaKanjana Silpa-archa UnclearRegion-based

We can separate the political parties along two lines: those supporting Prayut’s return to the premiership and those who do not.

The core of the anti-Prayut opposition remains Pheu Thai. Pheu Thai ran in the last election under the slogan ‘Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts’; this Thaksinite influence is unlikely to be scrubbed for this election. New parties using strikingly similar logos to Pheu Thai have also emerged, however, including the Thai Raksa Chart party, which seems to exist to provide Pheu Thai a backup in case their party is dissolved and to take advantage of the new constitution, which favors medium-sized parties.

Abhisit has pledged that the Democrat Party will refuse to support Prayut’s return, going so far as to declare that “anyone contemplating General Prayut’s return need not come to the party”. This distinguishes the Democrats from the other conservative parties as the only one to vocally oppose Prayut. The Democrat Party’s election slogan is “people’s power, clean democracy” (prachachon pen yai, prachathipathai sujarit).

The Future Forward Party is emerging as a major force opposing Prayut’s return. Unabashedly liberal, the party is running under the slogan of “2 Thai equalities”, with both internal income equality and international capability parity with other countries. Thanathorn has demanded, among other things, a new constitution to replace the 2017 charter, a radical downsizing of the military and decentralization.

Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit

Of the pro-Prayut parties, the most significant is Palang Pracharath (PPRP). The party is led by two current cabinet ministers and is vocal in pledging to support Prayut. The PPRP champions the government’s “pracharath” scheme of Thaksin-style populist policies, which seem intended to be used to beat Pheu Thai at their own game.

The Action Coalition for Thailand (or in Thai Ruampalangprachachat) which holds Suthep as a core figure, has also enthusiastically embraced Prayut. ACT rhetorically positions itself as the parliamentary party equivalent of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protests that attempted to oust the Pheu Thai government in 2011.

A number of small parties and regional parties will also contest this election. They include Bhumjaithai (based in Buriram) and Chartthaipattana (based in Supanburi), which traditionally have positioned themselves as coalition partners to whichever party wins the elections.

Who is most likely to win? 

This is an open question.

If history is any guide, the Pheu Thai party should be able to win easily. Thaksin-aligned parties have won every single general election since 2001, including outright majorities in 2005 and 2011. This is due to Thaksin’s enduring popularity in the populous but poor north and northeastern regions. However, the new constitution will utilize an obscure mixed-member majoritarian election system which will favor medium parties and likely reduce gains by major parties. Indeed, a simulation has shown that if the 2011 election were run under this system, Pheu Thai would not have won the most seats but not a majority.

In addition, the Thai Senate, which under the new constitution will be completely appointed by the current junta, will be allowed to participate in the parliamentary vote for prime minister. If Pheu Thai were to win a large majority in the lower house, would the Senate have the stomach to block a Pheu Thai prime minister? That remains to be seen, but the constitutional ground inherently favors Prayut. If Prayut were supported by 250 senators, he would only need 126 more seats out of the 500-seat House of Representatives to be elected prime minister.

Palang Pracharath

Prayut is unable to campaign openly for the premiership. He relies instead on a variety of proxies. The sam mit (Three Friends) group, which are comprised of figures who were previously allied with Thaksin but now aligned with the Prayut regime, has been instrumental in wooing former Pheu Thai MPs to run with PPRP. PPRP is attempting to make a major dent in the Thaksin strongholds in the north and northeast by running on continuing the government’s Thaksin-style Pracharath scheme of economic policies; whether they are successful will likely determine the election result.

The Democrats face a massive, possibly insurmountable issue in that they must now contend with ACT and PPRP for the same anti-Thaksin voter base. Traditionally, the Democrats have done best in more affluent regions such as Bangkok and the south. Now, anti-Thaksin voters will face a choice: do they wish to support Prayut’s return (either by voting for PPRP or other pro-Prayut parties) or do they vote for Abhisit? The Democrats have not won an election in 26 years and have tried to refresh their image by launching a ‘New Dems’ wing fronted by Abhisit’s nephew, Parit Wacharasindhu. That is unlikely to be enough and a Democrat victory is virtually inconceivable.

Abhisit launching the Democrat campaign

The fate of Future Forward is a bit of an enigma. The party, being unapologetically progressive in its outlook, is popular among the urban and the young. Whether or not it can translate that support into actual constituency wins is questionable. Future Forward could possibly become a medium-sized parliamentary power or receive a respectable vote share but few parliamentary seats.

Does this election matter?

Some have noted that this election may not change much at all. The 2017 constitution includes a requirement that elected governments must follow the ’20-year national strategy’ drafted by the current junta, and that governments can be impeached for failing to follow it. This essentially places all future governments in a straitjacket and denies them the ability to determine their own policies. This, critics argue, essentially voids elections of any meaning and perpetuates military supervision of the country.

There remains reason to be more optimistic. If a party were able to secure a large democratic mandate, electoral legitimacy may deter extreme action — more judicial coups and military coups are unlikely to be viewed favorably by the public. In addition, many major political figures have voiced support for constitutional amendment.

In the end, this election will resolve some of the questions of Thai politics. If Prayut were to remain as prime minister, then the military can rest satisfied that its decades-long attempt to eradicate the country of Thaksin’s influence has been successful. Any victory that requires the appointed Senate will distinctly lack legitimacy, however, and may be the impetus for fresh protests. If Pheu Thai does win, pro-military forces will probably do all they can to disrupt and frustrate the government.

In the end, Thailand’s underlying conflicts, in short, remain unresolved with this election. The underlying dynamics of a clash between an emerging rural poor and urban middle class remain, along with deep-rooted distrust between both sides. As Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak writes in the Bangkok Post:

The election and coronation this year broadly represent Thailand’s search for a new political order that accommodates constitutional monarchy and fledgling democracy in a new moving mix away from past decades during the Cold War when bottom-up aspirations for popular rule and basic rights and freedoms were subsumed and suppressed under state security. Over the next two years, Thailand could end up again in a cycle of conflict and confrontation or it could break out into relative political stability if the old order and new players in Thai politics are willing to find a compromise. The stakes are so high that we all have a vested interest to call for and promote the latter scenario. 






One response to “Thailand’s 2019 Election, Explained”

  1. […] month, I wrote an explainer article on Thailand’s 2019 general election. I intended to follow up soon after with another article endorsing one political party, but I found […]

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