Stakes and meanings of the 2023 poll
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Stakes and meanings of the 2023 poll


For all intents and purposes, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will not call an early election and will practically use up the full four-year term before dissolving the Lower House. Calling an early poll is often a sign of confidence and stability while putting it off to the last minute can be seen as timid and desperate. Nevertheless, the good news is that Thailand will have an election soon. The broader stakes and meanings of the upcoming poll are as follows.

First, the 2023 election is not a standalone event and should not be viewed merely as the cut-and-thrust of current Thai politics. Instead, the upcoming poll is the continuation of a two-decades-long contest to determine Thailand's political future. The fact that the main opposition Pheu Thai Party is on course to win again is the most likely political outcome in the past 20 years.

Pheu Thai's two precursors, the Thai Rak Thai and Palang Prachachon (People's Power) parties, were dissolved in May 2007 and December 2008, respectively. In combination, these three banners have won every Thai election from January 2001 and February 2005 to December 2007, July 2011 and March 2019. Their victory margins varied, featuring landslides in 2005 and 2011, with near-majority wins in 2001 and 2007. Only in the 2019 poll did Pheu Thai come out on top with a slimmer margin, amounting to 136 over the ruling Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP)'s 116.

Poll results not only point to another Pheu Thai triumph in two months, but a victory by too big a margin to be denied a role in the resultant coalition government. Its poll victories are so familiar that many tend to gloss over the reasons why. How could Pheu Thai keep winning when its earlier incarnations were dissolved twice by the Constitutional Court in 2007-08 and ousted on two occasions by military coups in September 2006 and May 2014?

The forces arrayed against Pheu Thai and its founder and mastermind, Thaksin Shinawatra, have seized and held on to power by various means for some years during this period. With all that power in their hands to do whatever they want with the country, why couldn't they win over the electorate?

One answer is sheer incompetence and ineptitude. Getting rid of the Thaksin-aligned governments should have led to adapting and co-opting some of the policies that made his electoral machinery so popular and effective. Another answer is that Thaksin's conservative-royalist opponents have been in denial and never respected Thai voters, deeming them to be ignorant and unworthy of genuine recognition.

This is not to say that Thaksin wholeheartedly cared about the electorate. His regime merely recognised the vast majority of voters residing upcountry and addressed their grievances by giving them a chance for a better tomorrow. Populist policies in the Thaksin years were frowned upon by his adversaries and many Bangkok-based columns. Yet now, all of the parties running in the upcoming election are populist, offering a wide variety of handouts and giveaways with scant mention of where the money to finance them is going to come from.

In other words, Thai society has been changing for the past two decades. The people who were left behind got a chance to have their say, and they have been speaking up each time a poll took place. Yet Thailand's powers-that-be won't let change and adjustment take place, preferring the restoration and preservation of the old order from the second half of the last century. This is why Pheu Thai is on track to surpass the rest. It is also why the Move Forward Party (MFP) is polling well, despite having been dissolved earlier when it was known as the Future Forward Party.

The second clear trend is closely related to the first. Thailand has had an evident pattern of elected parties with majority voter support forming governments that were kicked out time and again, twice by coups and multiple times by judicial activism. When elections took place in 2007 and 2011, it felt like a case of déjà vu because the winning sides seemed destined to be ejected one way or another. And so it happened with the judicial dissolution in December 2008 and the military coup in May 2014.

What is different in 2023 is the MFP. While the dissolution of its precursor seemed like a familiar blow, it was not. This was not another Thaksin-controlled party but a brand new movement of younger voters, underpinned by a youth movement for reform eyeing a better future. This was not the old colour-coded reds versus yellows. The addition of so many youthful faces in Thai politics is further proof that change is in the air, but is being systematically suppressed.

Finally, the poll in about two months' time will be the most consequential in Thailand's modern history. While all elections are important, every now and then there would be a vote that dictates longer-term trends and directions. Thailand had four elections in the 1990s that more or less were driven by patronage politics underpinned by run-of-the-mill political parties. Thai Rak Thai's 2001 election victory broke the mould because it was led by a policy platform and an organised party structure. But then subsequent elections in 2005, 2007 and 2011 were a back-and-forth pattern marked by polls, judicial manoeuvres, two coups, and two new constitutions. The 2019 election reversed the trend towards entrenched conservative-royalist rule.

In 2023, we will see either Thailand settling deeper into a long-term conservative-royalist bureaucratic state, or perking up with a qualitatively different government that could move the country forward again. The outcome does not have to be radical and drastic, as in upending the established order. A compromise is viable where the largest winning party with electoral support is allowed to form a government and enact overdue structural economic reforms with incremental political liberalisation.

But if this election is subverted and distorted again to end up with more or less the same kind of government, in a similar way as was seen in 2019, Thailand will see more and more signs of political decay. Public trust and faith in traditional institutions will continue to erode, and economic stagnation, as reflected in the rising public debt of more than 5 trillion baht under Gen Prayut's watch, will also run on as the nation focuses on slow, labour-intensive growth toward the tail end of global value chains.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, is a professor at the Faculty of Political Science and a senior fellow at its Institute of Security and International Studies.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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