Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (center) with supporters
While many Western democracies are losing their former prestige as a political model for Southeast Asia, there are interesting developments in the upcoming elections. In Europe, formerly stable political systems have crumbled. Party programs are difficult to distinguish, traditional ideological divides between conservatives, socialists, and liberals have nearly vanished, far right and far left fringe parties make it into the parliaments. The trust of the voters in political parties has eroded in such a way that parliamentary majorities are more difficult to form than ever before. More coalition governments struggle to survive, and hardly compatible parties in these shaky coalitions are facing the big challenge of accelerating economic and demographic changes. The USA, considered for many decades the leading model for the world and promoting democracy everywhere, is risking no less than its own governability in the unprecedented conflict between Republicans and Democrats. The once celebrated “Third Wave of Democratization” is so obviously history that finger pointing at democratic deficits in other countries is becoming futile and counterproductive. Politically motivated sanctions against military and authoritarian regimes don’t change attitudes but often enough endanger the poorer parts of their population. Exporting democracy as a humanitarian mission and attempts at regime change in countries far away look out of place, and the “missionaries” should better try to improve and rebalance their systems at home to regain credibility. Given this background, politicians, voters, and political scientists in Asia resent being constantly reminded of their democratic deficits and lack of human rights and minority protection. That might also apply to many among the 1.3 billion Chinese who see the progress of the country and the improved quality of life, without suffering too much from their lack of democratic freedoms under the tight control of the Communist Party. Because of the fast-increasing prosperity in many parts of Southeast Asia, people are more self-assured, and voters are looking for opportunities and improvement of their personal lives while remaining well aware of the power games among the political elites and their competition. But the popular demand for more transparency and democratic participation is persistently visible, not least inspired by the Myanmar resistance against the military regime.
The Thai elections on 14th May
Thailand has lived through a checkered history in terms of democratic development with more than a dozen military coups. Nevertheless, what seems to come up in the May election could be a fresh start without the coalition between the economic establishment and the conservative voter base supporting the monarchy and the military. The incumbent Prime Minister and ex-general, Prayut Chan-ocha, is running for re-election on a ticket of the United Thai Nation Party, which he joined only in December 2022. He has been in power since 2014, when his coup toppled the elected government, and he was elected in 2019 as a new-born civilian. His candidacy may be a move to consolidate the ruling coalition beyond April 2025 when his maximum six-year term as Prime Minister will end. Prayuth’s shaky coalition may have a chance to continue because of certain technicalities in Thailand’s election law. The Prime Minister is being elected by the 500 members of parliament and the 250 senators who are appointed and supposed to be “reliable”. If there is no clear majority for one of the candidates in the lower house, which is rather probable, the senate may tip the scale by joining one of the MP groups and support the incumbent. Thailand has experimented with changes of the election law and the balance between 400 MPs being elected in a first-past-the-post system with 100 more on party lists. Internal critics feel that this 400 to 100 balance favours the big parties. What may turn out as a surprise is the strength of the parties now in opposition. Leading in the polls is the Pheu Thai Party, the second reincarnation of Thaksin Shinawatra’s original Thai Rak Thai Party, which ruled from 2001 to 2006 and was dissolved in 2007. Its founder Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made billionaire, lives in exile, and his 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra is increasingly ahead of Prayuth in the polls, despite her lack of leadership experience. Prayuth has so far managed to defang the opposition, especially the charismatic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, co-founder and leader of the Future Forward Party, dissolved in 2020, which resurrected as Move Forward Party and aims to end the military’s role in the country’s politics. This is particularly popular among the younger and more educated population and in urban areas. The Move Forward Party, which is campaigning as well for certain reforms concerning the political role of the monarchy, may be better prepared than in the last election, having had more time to identify candidates and campaign in the constituencies. Like in other countries in the region, especially in Indonesia, candidates are increasingly being vetted for their electability, a feature widely neglected in Western democracies, where self-declared leaders fight their way up to the candidacy. That does not guarantee at all that they are attractive to the voters. The bait should be appetizing for the fish and not for the fisherman.
Thailand’s party landscape is splintered and fluid. Parties come and go, are banned, and resurface under a new name. Speculating on future coalitions after the May 14 election is difficult, while other mechanisms like money politics and old traditions of vote buying can be game changers beyond the intentions of voters and the often-unreliable poll results. There is also the Bhumjaithai Party, the second biggest in the outgoing coalition, which is open for cooperation with Pheu Thai or Prayuth or Prawit, whoever wins and is open for compromises, not least in the distribution of cabinet positions. Prayut’s own support base has been weakened by a split in the military and his falling out with the influential general Prawit Wongsuwan from the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). Both generals are promising a new political climate beyond the old divisions and promise to address the real issues of the people and the country. These are mainly the recovery after the Covid-slump, with a 6% contraction of the economy and many job losses in the important tourism industry. Now the tourists are coming back, and the outlook turns to cautious optimism for the second biggest economy of Southeast Asia. That might support Prayuth’s promise for continuity and stability, but it remains to be seen how strong the more anti-establishment drive by Pheu Thai and Move Forward will be at the ballot boxes in May. They are campaigning with promises, like an increased minimum wage, similar to the old establishment, but there is not much financial leeway to fund them without new debts or higher taxes.
The challenger: PM candidate Paetongtarn Shinawatra