Takeaways From Thailand’s 2019 Election

I just flew from Washington D.C to New York City with no laptop. Originally, I had planned on commenting on the Thai election after I fly back to Berkeley, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to write a quick post.

The election, already famous for its unpredictability, has took an even stranger turn: the junta’s Palang Pracharath is on course to win the most votes, beating the Thaksinite Pheu Thai party. How did each of the parties fare? What will happen next? What did we learn from this election campaign? Here’s some key takeaways:

1. Prayut Chan-o-cha will most likely remain as prime minister, but Palang Pracharath will need a coalition. Prayut only needed 125 seats in the lower house, as the 250 junta-appointed senators can be counted on to support him. PPRP is on track to exceed this count and therefore Prayut will be able to return as prime minister.

This does not mean that his government can survive with PPRP alone. 250 votes is still needed to defeat a motion of no-confidence, and Prayut will want to cobble together a coalition of parties willing to support him. All eyes now turn to Bhumjaithai, a medium sized party that did well and likely netted around fifty seats. Bhumjaithai propped up the Democrats’ Abhisit government in the past; it wouldn’t be a stretch for them to do so again, especially if PPRP offers Anutin Chanvirakul, the Bhumjaithai leader, a lucrative and powerful post in government. Other smaller parties, such as Chartthai Pattana and ACT, could also be invited to a coalition.

The real question-mark would appear if Bhumjaithai rejects a coalition with PPRP; they’ve also worked with Thaksin. That would leave PPRP shorn of the votes it needs to win a no confidence debate. Therefore, even if Prayut returns to the premiership, he will have to rely on other kingmakers.

2. Pheu Thai has a major dilemma it must confront. Pheu Thai and PPRP are essentially in a dead heat, which is impressive given that it did not compete in many constituencies, counting on the now-dissolved Thai Raksa Chart party.

Pheu Thai, however, is in a dilemma. The election showed that many of its supporters in the northeast defected to the military regime, which decided to run similar Thaksin-style economic policies. (PPRP outdid Pheu Thai on a proposed minimum wage hike, for example). This shows that the Thaksin recipe for success can be replicated by other parties, and may even work better on voters who desire those policies but are increasingly resentful of the self-exiled billionaire’s ghostlike preence in Thai politics. This may especially have been true after the Princess Ubolratana debacle and later when the princess was photographed hugging Thaksin in Hong Kong.What, then, is the future for Pheu Thai moving forward, given how intrinsically it is linked to Thaksin?

3. The Democrats must reform to avoid being relegated to irrelevance. The party suffered its worst defeat in modern history, forcing Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign as party leader. It is a sad ending for the former prime minister who was once the great hope of Thai politics but proved unable to win a single election in his tenure. His heavy baggage, ambiguous stances and being outshined by Prayut on appealing to anti-Thaksin voters became his downfall.

This defeat is crushing for Thailand’s oldest political party, with only 30-50 seats expected. Ironically, this defeat paves the way for the Democrats to return to government – albeit as a coalition partner. Abhisit was staunchly opposed to Prayut’s return as prime minister, but his successor may not have the same disinclination.

What is clear is that the Democrats need to reform to be competitive in future elections. Its stronghold in Bangkok abandoned the party for PPRP and Future Forward, showing that the party needs to do more to appeal to its core urban group of voters. It tried to appeal to a younger generation with its ‘New Dem’ slate of candidates, but they were all defeated in the capital. The Democrats need to find out how to make what is old seem new again.

4. This election will not end conflict in Thailand, but was a reckoning it had to undergo. In the final days leading up to the election, PPRP liked to use the slogans “Vote Prayut for peace” and “Go beyond the conflict”. The truth is the junta itself is a party to the conflict. Therefore, PPRP winning the election merely represents one side triumphing over the other.

In an ordinary democratic system, this would not be an issue. The conflict is likely to continue, however, because the election’s legitimacy is likely to be called into question. Vote buying was observed, a number of irregularities were observed, and many statistics reported by the Electoral Commission seems dubious). Therefore, this poll has not given the junta the cloak of electoral legitimacy it craves.

Still, this election marks an important step forward. The (relatively) free atmosphere that marked the election and the return of parliamentary processes will allow conflict to be channelled back into democratic means, rather than suppressed under the boots of the military.

5. This election gives us reason to be optimistic about the future. Thailand’s democracy has grown up, as evidenced by this elections season. Debates have been held far more frequently and the policy debate has been substantive. I particularly commend the debate held by The Standard, which was simultaneously informative and entertaining.

I’m also pleasantly surprised by the performance of the Future Forward Party, which will net around 80 seats, far more than expected. Future Forward eschewed old style patronage politics in the countryside, which was why it was not expected to do well. Now, it can be a vehicle in parliament for the aspirations and desires of a younger generation, more engaged than ever, who seek change. If they are in opposition, I believe they will do a good job scrutinizing and opposing PPRP’s policies.

* * *

It’s still early days. We can only wait and see what happens next. Onward, and forward!






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