Expectations, Skepticism, and Hope among Thailand’s Political Parties


Partyforumseasia: Thailand’s political history has not been “smooth as silk”, as the tourism promoting slogan tried to characterize the country. Since the end of the absolute monarchy, in1932, there were seven failed and eleven successful military coups, the last one in May 2014. Since then, under Prime Minister and former general Prayut Chan-o-cha, a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has banned activities of the political parties, but promised the eventual return to democracy. The volatile and splintered party landscape had produced massive unrest and turmoil since, in 1998, Thaksin Shinawatra founded the Thai Rak Thai Party which swept him to power in 2001. The ingredients of his meteoric rise were lots of money and a hitherto neglected voter base in the poor North and Northeast. The political establishment, aka Bangkok elite, did everything to fight Thaksin. His party was banned by the constitutional court, but survived in re-incarnations. The second one is still around as Puea Thai or Pheu Thai, and the third one surfaced only a few days ago, on 7 November, under the name of Thai Raksa Chart Party.

The much anticipated return to civil rule has been delayed until now, promised elections were postponed, but a new constitution and many institutional changes have been implemented in the meantime. To be fair, though, the NCPO-junta-regime has at least managed a smooth royal transition from the revered King Bhumibol to his less popular son Vajiralongkorn, for which internal and external pundits had predicted turmoil and uprising.

Sensing the popular expectations, PM Prayut has now hinted that the polls might be held on 24th February 2019. Deputy Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon, has informed the impatient parties that the partially relaxed ban on political activities will be lifted, once a new election law for the national parliament will be enacted on 12th December, followed by a royal decree to confirm the election date.
Here are some glimpses into the preparations of the main competitors:

The Democrat Party, founded in 1946, is the oldest political party, and has played an important role since. The liberal-conservative party opposed military rule already in the 1990s, led government coalitions several times, but had no chance against Thaksin Shinawatra’s power and money politics. Its leader since 2005, Abhisit Vejjajiva, re-elected last week, was Prime Minister from 2008 to 2011. The Democrats are strong with a well established party organization and with a solid power base in the South and in Bangkok. The party machinery is well prepared for the campaign.

The Puea Thai Party has just elected a new chairman, Viroj Pao-in, a retired police Puea Thai leadergeneral. The problem of the party is the looming uncertainty whether the junta or the courts might dissolve it before the election, because they suspect the exiled former leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, to pull the strings from his exile in Dubai. Puea Thai and connected groups, supported by the so-called United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or Red Shirts, have won the last five elections and were only stopped by the courts and the military,

Another ally in the “pro democracy camp” is the Future Forward Party, led by young tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

But there is also a new kid on the block, the recently founded Thai Raksa Chart Party. Observers in Thailand suspect that this third re-incarnation of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai is the plan B or safety net in case the Puea Thai should be dissolved. Marketing themselves as “political young blood” politicians, the core members and leaders come predominantly from political families related to Thaksin, including party leader Preechapol Pongpanich. Whether this new group is fighting fit for a nationwide campaign remains to be seen.

This year alone, more than 30 new parties have applied for registration with the Election Commission, in addition to the about 16 established ones. As mentioned, Thailand’s  party landscape is volatile and splintered, and at the same time dynamic and flexible. The main fault line, however, is the social and political divide between urban royalists, known as the “yellow shirts”, and Thaksin’s supporters and his rural support base, the “red shirts”.

High hopes on a return to civil rule and liberal democracy may be premature. The determination of Prime Minister Prayut and his military backing to keep in control  should not be underestimated. The “precautions” of the military in neighboring Myanmar to control Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government should be a warning.

 

This post, like all the others in the blog, is free for reproduction. We only request a copy. 

Banharn Silpa-archa: The King of Thai Money Politics Dies at Age 83


Partyforumseasia: The province of Suphan Buri hast lost its patron and benefactor for decades. The 21st Prime Minister of Thailand, Banharn Silpa-archa, has so Ban 2successfully channeled subsidies and development projects to his home turf and power base that the province was also known as Banharn Buri
Banharn, who was also long term leader of the Chart Thai Pattana Party, died on April 23 at a hospital in Bangkok. After a royal sponsored funeral ceremony, attended by all top political leaders of the country, his urn was transferred to Suphan Buri.

Ban 1

The funeral convoy in Suphan Buri

The origins of his political career sound a bit like a fairy tale. The son of a Chinese shopkeeper in Suphan, he came to Bangkok as a teenager and helped his elder brothers in their coffee shop. Bringing coffee to the nearby Public Works Department, he met officials from his home province. When he later started a construction company they granted him a 10 year monopoly for tap water installation all over the country which made him rich. And he spent much of his money in his home province, building schools and hospitals and bringing in the royal family for their openings. The role of benevolent and generous businessmen in Thai politics has been enormous. And Banharn may be one of the most interesting examples of their ascendance to huge political influence and control of their home turf. The local denomination for these men is „chao pho“ or „nak leng“, oscillating between patron and godfather. But this influence was also promoting massive vote buying. Banharn brought money by truckloads to the rural areas which owned him the dubious nickname of “Mr. ATM” or Mr Automatic Teller Machine… Consequently, his serial re-elections were landslide victories between 60 and 90 %!!
The endemic proliferation of vote buying with vote-traders ( „hua khanaen“ ) offering their services, including a guaranteed win, to the highest bidder, irrespective of which party, was detrimental to Thailand’s once famed democratization. It is noteworthy that during the democratization process since 1973 many of the patron-godfathers moved up into party politics, the parliament and the cabinets, which allowed even bigger financial benefits and direct influence on the distribution of development projects. Banharn’s Suphan Buri province has thus been blessed with the best roads, schools, hospitals, and general infrastructure in Thailand.

Could the death of Banharn Silpa-archa be “the end of an era” like some commentators suggested, or even symbolize an end to money politics in Thailand? Unfortunately, that sounds too nice to be true. What Banharn has started in big style has been perfected by Thaksin Shinawatra, money politics extended to the whole country.

One persistently festering problem of the country is “A Culture of Impunity”, highlighted recently (27th May) by the Bangkok Post (Link):
“…a long-standing problem in our society – the inability to enforce the rule of law. (…) Money, power and connections can influence the enforcement of the law in other countries too. But in Thailand, we have examples that are more glaring and blatant. (…) While we despise and condemn the fact that the rich and wealthy can get away with murder, we must also accept that the general public here do not respect the rule of law.”

The military regime declares that it stands for law and order and against the dirty politics of the political parties. Cleaning up money politics, however, is a daunting task nearly everywhere, but especially in Southeast Asia.

 

Political Science Papers Thailand: New Paper on Democrat and Phuea Thai Party by Michael H. Nelson


Nelson, Democrat and Phuea Thai

Partyforumseasia: Is Thaksin Shinawatra indirectly back in the driver’s seat, just using his sister Yingluck as facade? An in-depth study by Michael H.Nelson from Walailak University.