A tale of two by-elections: Polls offer clues as Thailand heads into election countdown
Last Sunday’s by-elections in the southern provinces of Songkhla and Chumphon saw fierce battles between the ruling Palang Pracharath and Democrat Party coalition partners.
Victory went to the Democrats, who had dominated the South until the last general election in March 2019 when the party lost more than 50 percent of its seats to Palang Pracharath and Bhumjaithai, another coalition partner.
Democrat candidate Issarapong Mak-ampai won Chumphon’s Constituency 1 by-election with 49,014 votes, beating Chawalit At-han of Palang Pracharath on 32,281 votes.
In Songkhla’s Constituency 6, Democrat Party’s Suphaporn Kamnerdphol garnered 45,576 votes to conquer her Palang Pracharath rival, Anukool Pruksanusak, who bagged 40,531.
The by-elections were held after the previous incumbents – both Democrat MPs – lost their seats to a court ruling. The Constitutional Court ruled in December that jail terms handed to Songkhla MP Thaworn Senneam and Chumphon MP Chumpol Julsai over their roles in People’s Democratic Reform Committee protests had voided their parliamentary status.
Analysts say the by-elections offered clues to the political landscape as Thailand prepares for a general election due next year. Do the results signal Palang Pracharath’s popularity is in decline? And could the Democrats rise from the ashes?
What went wrong for Palang Pracharath?
In most previous by-elections under this government, ruling Palang Pracharath candidates have beaten competitors from both the opposition and fellow coalition parties.
The two latest campaigns again saw Palang Pracharath leader and Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan join other Cabinet members as well as party secretary-general Thammanat Prompao in wooing voters with government policies and remedial measures to alleviate the economic crisis.
But what went wrong with a ruling party that has all the authority, resources, and capacity to win elections against less well-positioned rivals?
The blame lay with Thammanat’s controversial speech in Songkhla, according to analysts. Speaking at a campaign rally, the party’s secretary-general urged people to vote for a candidate “from a family with pedigree and wealth”.
“Voters in the South felt insulted by the speech. It sounded like southern people could be bought,” said Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute.
He reckoned Thammanat’s words had incited listeners – especially “silent” or “independent” voters – to deliver a slap in the face to the ruling party.
To back his theory, the analyst cited the high voter turnout of more than 70 percent in both constituencies.
Internal conflict within Palang Pracharath was another reason for the loss, said Stithorn. The party has split into two camps, one supporting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as its next PM candidate and the other seeking a new nominee.
“Leaving out Prayut [as a strong selling point] in the campaign landed the party the defeat,” said Stithorn.
The victory gave hope to the Democrats in their struggle to regain voter support after a disastrous result at the March 2019 election. The 75-year-old party suffered a humiliating setback, winning only 53 seats and losing all constituencies in Bangkok, once a key stronghold.
But analysts say the country’s oldest party cannot afford to celebrate just yet.
“The victory does not guarantee the good old days have returned for the Democrats,” said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
While the poll wins were a positive sign, they were not proof that the party would reclaim dominance in the South or more widespread popularity at the next election.
However, the victory did indicate that the Democrat brand is still strong at least in the two constituencies, he added. The wins also showed that family politics still dominate here.
Democrat MP-elect Suphaporn is a former deputy chief executive of Songkhla’s Provincial Administrative Organization. She is the wife of new Democrat deputy party leader Dech-it Khaothong, who is also an MP for Songkhla.
Over in Chumphon, the Julsai family also maintained its electoral stronghold. MP-elect Issarapong is a nephew of the wife of former incumbent Chumpol.
Analyst Yuthaporn said the party still has plenty to prove, especially when it comes to measures to alleviate the economic crisis for southerners. Home to Thailand’s world-famous beaches and holiday islands, the tourism-dependent region has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, Stithorn thinks the Democrat wins mean little. He pointed out that the party merely held on to two constituencies it already possessed. However, he agreed the Democrat brand was still strong in the two constituencies.
Move Forward goes backwards
The results delivered a shock for the opposition Move Forward, which attracted less than 50 percent of the votes it received at the 2019 election under its previous incarnation as the Future Forward Party.
Move Forward’s Songkhla candidate, Thiwat Damkaew, came third with 5,427 votes, while its Chumphon candidate Woraphon Anantasak came fourth with 3,582 votes.
However, analysts were not surprised at the results, noting that by-elections differ from general elections.
“It may sound terrible [for Move Forward] but this is the nature of by-elections. Previous by-elections also saw the party lose 50 percent of the votes they garnered at the general election,” said Stithorn.
Unlike in general elections, advance voting is not permitted in by-elections, meaning migrant workers cannot cast ballots unless they travel back home.
The stakes in each type of election are also different, he added.
In the general election, voters backed Future Forward because they wanted it to form the government. In by-elections, they tend to vote strategically to teach the party they hate most a lesson, Stithorn said.
“In these by-elections, they knew Move Forward had no chance of winning, so they voted for the Democrats in order to rebuke Thammanat [for his controversial speech] and the ruling party,” said the analyst.
Clues for next general election
One crucial question is whether the by-elections offer any clues to the result of the next general election. Yes and no, say the analysts. At the very least, they offered guidelines for parties to plan their strategy for the next national poll, they said.
Stithorn said Palang Pracharath had now realized that if it wanted to win Chumphon, it would have to lure Chumpol away from the Democrats.
Coalition partners, or enemies?
Another question is whether the verbal and legal war that broke out between Palang Pracharath and the Democrats during campaigning will undermine the stability of the government.
Analysts think the issue won’t be a problem; the real danger to government stability is the internal conflict in the ruling Palang Pracharath, they said.
“The Democrat election campaign may attack Prawit but support Prayut. The party has acted like Prayut’s ally. And it thinks [this strategy] works well,” said Stithorn.
Yuthaporn stressed an old saying in politics: “There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”
“In elections, there are no government or opposition parties: all parties are competitors,” said the analyst.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk