The tide of history shifts in Thai politics
text size

The tide of history shifts in Thai politics


Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, and Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew make a heart-shaped gesture at a press conference to affirm the commitment of an eight-party coalition group to form a government together. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, and Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew make a heart-shaped gesture at a press conference to affirm the commitment of an eight-party coalition group to form a government together. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

Notwithstanding the ongoing political shenanigans by appointed agencies to shape final outcomes after the May 14 poll, Thailand already will never be the same again. The Move Forward Party's (MFP) victory as the largest winning side, with 151 out of 500 parliamentary seats, is profound but not unprecedented. Together with the Pheu Thai Party's 141 MPs, these two opposition parties are unwittingly sending a message to each other and to the broader political establishment that the curve of Thai history is shifting tectonically. Failing to grasp and adjust to this evolving tide of history could marginalise Pheu Thai and challenge the establishment to its core foundations.

That the MFP was able to widen and deepen its base despite having been dissolved three years earlier as the Future Forward Party is a feat that is hard to overstate. But it was not the first time that a young, new party stormed the electoral arena and left its competitors in the dust. Pheu Thai's original vehicle, the Thai Rak Thai Party, was the first mover in this direction, headed at the time by Thaksin Shinawatra, Pheu Thai's controversial and self-exiled patriarch.

When Thai Rak Thai ran in the January 2001 election just three years after its founding and garnered 248 out of 500 contested seats, its peers were gobsmacked. It was as if the hitherto established parties -- the Democrats, New Aspiration, Chart Thai, and Chart Pattana -- got hit by a train. These traditional parties ran on the same old vague campaigns about unity, prosperity, development, good health, and happiness. But by that time, the Thai electorate wanted something new and different. When it was imagined and offered, millions of voters went head over heels for it on a scale previously unheard of.

In the pre-smartphone era, Thai Rak Thai arrived after five decades of a popular reign dominated by Cold War imperatives to keep communism away. The military, monarchy, and bureaucracy had become ascendant and paramount in Thailand's political order. This period also witnessed galloping economic growth that delivered better standards of living, but much of it was concentrated in Bangkok and in the hands of big business, widening the inequality and income gap.

As the poor and disadvantaged were neglected, Thailand operated as a bureaucratic state where elected representatives came and went but did not really leave their mark because bureaucrats held sway. Patronage networks, underpinned by corruption and graft, dominated electoral politics in 1992, 1995, and 1996. The status quo then was ripe for a bold and upstart party like Thai Rak Thai to come along and capture the popular imagination by connecting directly with the electorate, providing a sense of upward mobility and addressing the urban-rural and rich-poor divides.

The older parties just could not conceive of operating outside the box of patronage and graft with tangible policies that voters would go for. For a while in the 1990s, the Democrat Party developed a globally outward-oriented and appealing reputation for being anti-military and anti-coup while still being pro-monarchy. Its performance in the past two decades steadily declined partly because it chose to be a pro-military party which did not oppose the putsches in 2006 and 2014. Trends and dynamics were not going the military's way, and the Democrats got caught out because they stood by the generals.

When it began, Thai Rak Thai's mantra was "think anew, act anew", which was coupled with concrete policies people could go to sleep with. To come up with its pro-poor policy platform, Thai Rak Thai hired professional pollsters and policy wonks who scientifically and methodically surveyed the electorate to discern their needs and grievances. The result was the first-generation "populist" policies of rural debt suspension, a micro-credit scheme known as the "village fund", the promotion of local handicrafts for world markets called "One Tambon, One Product", and the phenomenally successful and enduring universal healthcare system for 30 baht per hospital visit, among a raft of policy and bureaucratic reform programmes.

Dissolved and regrouped twice in 2007 and 2008, Pheu Thai as the third and latest name, again ran a populist campaign in the most recent election, spearheaded by a 10,000-baht digital handout to Thais over the age of 16 alongside other wage and welfare boosters. Yet its entire populist platform misfired this time. The Thaksin-aligned party lost for the first time in 2023 after successive triumphs as majority or near-majority winners in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2011, and 2019 in the face of military coups and judicial interventions.

Populism has run its course in Thai politics. Under Thai Rak Thai, it broke open the system of old patronage in a bureaucratic state under the military-monarchy symbiosis and gave people a viable alternative for a stake in the system and a better collective future. To be sure, populism will still be relevant and necessary, but it just won't win elections in the way it used to.

Move Forward is the new Thai Rak Thai. Thailand's shifting ground is moving from the urban-rural and rich-poor gaps and the populist policies to bridge them to structural and institutional reform and change of the military, monarchy, bureaucracy, and judiciary within a new constitutional order.

Pheu Thai is now trapped in the politics of its own making from the 2000s and 2010s and stuck with saturated populism and the Thaksin conundrum. Unless Pheu Thai is able and willing to strategically shift to the new paradigm of reforming the traditional institutions, it faces the prospect of dwindling numbers at the next election. To move on, Pheu Thai has to somehow transcend Thaksin and outgrow him, while adopting reform proposals that are winning votes for the MFP. Otherwise, Pheu Thai could become another also-ran party like the Democrats.

The MFP now has an open space to run and roam because reform and change are what more and more voters want. If the winning party is somehow dissolved again or forced into the opposition, it will likely strengthen further towards a majority victory in the next election. If it gets to form the government, its agenda of reform and change is likely to gain more supporters and converts. As the MFP is likely to dominate electoral politics for the foreseeable future until it faces peer competitors with a reform orientation, it is hard to see how the traditional centres of power can avoid the reform imperative.

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.

Do you like the content of this article?