With all of Thailand's contesting political parties lined up behind populist policy platforms ahead of the general election on May 14, it is not readily obvious what sets them apart.
What these parties stand for in view of the economy and business is not where to look. Where they stand apart revolves around the place, role and function of traditional institutions in Thailand's political order. Where and how these institutions, from the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary, fit into Thailand's constitutional framework represents the country's defining political fault line.
When it comes to populist policies to win votes, Thai political parties are strikingly alike. For example, the main opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP) appears to be leading the way with a plethora of pledged handouts and subsidies from minimum daily wage hikes and monthly salary increases for university degree holders to guaranteed household incomes. To counter Pheu Thai's policy promises, one might think that the governing parties would offer a platform that is different, if not altogether opposite.
But this is not the case. The United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, spearheaded by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, wants to increase the monthly allowances for state welfare cardholders and old-age pensioners while offering 100 vocational scholarships per district across the country.
The Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), from which Gen Prayut broke away, touts similar monthly financial increases for state welfare cardholders and pensioners, spicing it up with a "people's petrol" subsidy. The Bhumjaithai Party, another government coalition partner, leads its policy platform with a promise to suspend rural debt, echoing Pheu Thai's forerunner and dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party from 20 years ago.
To be fair, the major parties do address structural reforms in their campaigns. Both the UTN and PPRP want to tackle land reform to give greater access and ownership to poor rural households. The PTP aims to make Thailand the blockchain hub and fintech centre of Asean, solve the seasonal haze hazard and reboot Thai trade policy. Populist freebies are thus accompanied by varying degrees of pledged structural reforms, but no party can compete these days without outright populist promises.
Even the Move Forward Party (MFP), which has come up with the widest and most comprehensive range of structural reforms and upgrading programmes, cannot avoid populist conformity. On one hand, the MFP pledges electric buses and tap water of drinking quality nationwide, with transparent governance through artificial intelligence whereby whistle-blowers are rewarded, direct elections of provincial governors and an education revamp to cut red tape to provide more teaching time. On the other, the MFP proposes monthly allowances for infants (1,200 baht) and the elderly (3,000 baht), an immediate reduction of 0.70 baht per unit of electricity use.
The age of populism in Thai politics is a mixed bag. At risk is Thailand's longstanding and world-famous fiscal prudence and conservatism. All parties are advertising the expenditure side much more than income and where funds to finance these schemes will come from. At the same time, now that all parties are populist in a numerical fashion with handouts and income guarantees that are spelt out in baht terms, Thailand's entrenched and widening inequality is finally getting the attention and recognition it deserves. The policies being displayed are geared towards the poor majority, not the rich few.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of this populist drive and the competition it has generated is that policies have never mattered more in Thai politics. We are no longer seeing vague promises of a happy and prosperous society. The emphasis now is how to come up with operational and concrete programmes that benefit the vast majority of the electorate.
Beneath these populist platforms is a set of fundamental institutional reforms towards which the contending political parties hold starkly different views. Thailand's ultimate fault line revolves around traditional centres of power that have held sway and called the shots in this country for decades dating to after the Second World War.
One way to see where Thai political parties stand is to imagine how they would respond to another coup. Both the UTN and PPRP are closely associated with the last coup and are unlikely to object to another putsch, whatever its justification. The same logic applies to other government partners that have allied with these two military-linked parties.
The opposition parties would react strongly against another coup. The PTP and MFP would stand clearly against it -- the latter potentially taking to the streets to show its opposition -- in alliance with the smaller Seri Ruam Thai party. Unlike their competitors, these three parties have called for fundamental reforms of the military, including transparency and accountability of budget outlays and weapons procurement, striking at the heart of military inefficiencies, undue privileges and abuses of power.
The PTP and MFP specifically demand an end to the outdated but compulsory conscription. Countless years of young Thai men have been wasted by the draft, which routinely ends up assigning draftees to household duties of military officers. Proposing to get rid of the draft surely must not go down well with the top brass. The military needs bloated manpower for strength in numbers to maintain its power in politics.
The PTP and MFP also call for constitutional reforms to clip the wings of military interventions. Both parties have called for a new charter that will be drafted by a constitutional draft assembly, elected by voters. They view the current charter of 2017 as a by-product of the 2014 military coup, with pro-military provisions, such as a junta-appointed senate which can vote to choose the prime minister.
What sets the MFP further apart from the field is its call for reform of Section 112 in three dimensions. There should not be a minimum jail sentence of three years (up to 15 years) per conviction, and honest and genuine criticisms should be allowed, while the palace should file the charge as the aggrieved party, not anyone being able to charge anyone.
To see where Thai politics is going, it is necessary to trace the trajectory of these suggested reforms of the military and monarchy through constitutional revision. While the populist policies and which parties win how many seats and get to form what kind of government are a crucial sideshow, the eventual showdown will centre on how Thailand's traditional centres of power react and respond to these demands for reform and adjustment.