44 years of political development in Thailand
This article is translated from an article originally called “In the Movement (ในความเคลื่อนไหว)” on decode.plus: https://decode.plus/author/prajakkong/
By Associate Professor Dr. Prajak Kongkirati
The upcoming 2023 General Election is taking place in a new political climate in various respects. This article focuses on a political party system that has changed over the years.
As many of you might have sensed and noticed, as I have, this upcoming election is seeing intense competition, both in terms of policies and ideologies, between the political parties who have signed up for a chance at victory, as seen in their campaign speeches, debates, on social media platforms and in party leader interviews.
The main reason is that Thailand’s political party system is now moving into a new multi-party era, with ideological differences and policy platforms, which is distinct from previous political eras.
Since 1976 elections have become a process that has been gaining in importance in deciding who would ascend to power next. Thailand’s elections can be roughly classified into two eras, namely from 1976-1996 and 1997-2019.
Between 1976 and 1996, Thailand’s political party system was multi-party, yet barely varied in political ideology and policy. Many parties back then made their way to parliament with approximately 10-12 [constituency] members each. None of the parties actually achieved a landslide victory or represented the majority in parliament. The most voted-for party usually got only around 20-30% of the parliamentary seats and did not outnumber the first and second runners up. Sometimes they were neck and neck. For example, in the 1996 election, the New Aspiration Party gained 125 seats in parliament, beating the Democrat Party, who gained 123 seats. By political tradition the party with the most votes got the first chance to form the government, leading to General Chawalit Yongchaiyudh, the leader of the New Aspiration Party, becoming prime minister.
The election back then involved political parties such as the Democrat party, the Chart Thai party, the Social Action party, the People’s Power party, the Chart Pattana party, the New Aspiration party, the Palang Dharma party and the Seri Dharma party. This led to the need to form a coalition government.
Despite the large number of political parties, if their policies were to be compared, we would see striking similarities between their economic, education, national security and life quality development policies. This was because political parties back then did not yet form a sense of political institution and lacked strength. They did not develop their own policies to attract voters. The similarity of most policies was because most of them copied and borrowed from the national economic and social development plan and the strategies of various government agencies, to the extent that it resembled students copying homework from the same source. Additionally, their political stances and ideologies did not vary much between parties. The political attitudes back then could not be classified as conservative or liberal. (There had been a discourse on “The Angel Party” and “The Devil Party” during the election after the 1992 Bloody May crackdown, but that seemed more like a strategy from some political parties.)
So, if political parties did not promote their policies, then what did they promote?
They promoted the party’s leader, the appeal of the candidates and their family names, and support which had been given to local people. That was because most politicians moved between parties in almost every election and voters voted for the individual, rather than the party they were running under.
1976-1996 was an era of “different yet similar” in the multi-party system.
Everything changed after the financial crisis and new constitution in 1997. A two-ballot election system, as well as the selection of nationwide party list candidates, had been introduced to for the first time. This resulted in political parties gaining more strength and starting to compete with their policies in election campaigns. The number of parties who won seats in parliament decreased. In the 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2011 elections, there were, respectively, 9, 4, 7, 11 political parties which managed to make their way to parliament. The first and second most popular parties won many more parliamentary seats. Sometimes, they even won over half of the seats in the House.
Thailand’s politics in that era was moving towards a two-party system, namely the Thai Rak Thai Party (later the People’s Power party and then the Pheu Thai party) and the Democrat party. The two parties dominated up to 90% of the seats in parliament. It could be said that they left no room for other parties, which shrank in size. The party list votes were also concentrated in these two major parties (72-93%). Although parties with strong bases in rural areas, such as the Chart Thai and Bhumjaithai parties, still managed to win constituencies in provinces in which they had been working continuously, the parties themselves barely received the popular vote. For example, in the 2011 election, when Banharn Silpa-Archa’s Chart Thai party won 6,363,475 constituency votes nationally, the party garnered only 1,213,532 party list votes.
From 1997 to 2007, when Thai politics had become a two major party system, Thai society also experienced deeppolarisation. Street protests, political violence and the two military interventions caused Thai democracy to struggle. Colour-coded politics and the ever-intensifying ideological fights, between huge political movements and street protesters, who held totally different ideologies and opposing views of democracy, resulted in an election battle between parties, especially between the two main parties. It was not only policy competition, but it inevitably became an ideological fight. The double standard in the justice system, the killing of people during the crackdown, judicial activism, coups and military intervention and so on were now being debated on the election battle field, apart from just the competition of economic and welfare policies.
Now, another crucial change is happening in the upcoming 2023 election. The Thai political party landscape is entering another new era. Unlike 1976-1996 and 1997-2019, the field in Thailand has moved beyond the big two-party system. Although the political polarisation has not yet subsided, the political party landscape has become more diverse. In the past, we had “two-factions, two-party” politics. Now, there is “two-faction, multi-party” politics, with 6 main parties competing in the election this time. 80-90% of the votes and seats in the House will be concentrated in these 6 main parties: Pheu Thai, Bhumjaithai, Move Forward, Democrat, Palang Pracharath, and United Thai Nation. There will be another 5 or 6 smaller parties, which will get the chance to enter the House of Representatives with a modest number of votes, such as Chart Thai Pattana, Chart Pattana Kla, Prachachat, Seri Ruam Thai and Thai Sang Thai, etc.
Nonetheless, multi-party politics in the 2023 election is not reverting to the multi-party system of the 1976-1996 era, because today’s political parties in Thailand have diverse policies and ideologies. If we were to compare the policies of each party, we would see huge differences in the economic, education, labour, quality of life development and security policies. Take their stances on military conscription for example, we would see a heated debate and a diverse spectrum of ideas on the issue.
In terms of ideology, it is obvious that Thai politics will never be the same again. The ideological debate is even more intense than that of the 1997-2019 era, with the media and voters themselves categorising political parties into a spectrum of ideologies, ranging from far-right, extreme conservative to centre left to liberal democrat and the extremeprogressive wing. Nationalism and labelling people as “patriotic” or “traitorous” has become an unprecedented topic of controversy in political campaigning. Moreover, an issue that has never been on the agenda for policy debates in the history of Thai elections is Criminal Code Section 112 (lèse majesté), which has become a topic commonly raised and asked about in every political party debate. In addition, while the candidates from different parties are out campaigning, it is inevitable that they will confront people with divergent views on the matter.
Due to the nature of this multi-party system, which contains various shades of policy and ideology, it is inevitable that there will be a heated fight between parties, either from different ideologies or from different shades of the same ideology. Because, in the “various and diverse” political party system, all parties consider each other as their opponents in winning the votes. Thai people might not be familiar with this new climate.
In reality, however, we are not going back to either the two-party system or the multi-party one, with no ideological diversity. The positive of this new climate is that voters have more choice. People anywhere on the political and policy spectrum are offered the choice that matches their preferences and this is certainly a positive development for Thai democracy.