Big defeat in Bangkok could be beginning of end for Prayut’s government: analysts
Predictions of defeat for the ruling Palang Pracharath Party were being made several days before last Sunday’s Constituency 9 by-election in Bangkok, but few analysts expected such a devastating loss.
Palang Pracharath’s candidate Saranrat Jenjaka attracted just 7,906 votes – less than a quarter of the 34,907 votes received by her husband Sira when he won the same MP seat in the March 2019 general election, also as a Palang Pracharath candidate.
Surachart Thienthong from the opposition Pheu Thai Party won on Sunday with 29,416 votes, down from the 32,115 he received as runner-up behind Sira in 2009.
Actor-turned-politician Krunphol Tiansuwan from the opposition Move Forward Party came second, with 20,361 votes, followed by Kla Party secretary-general Atavit Suwannapakdee, who garnered 20,047 votes. Saranrat came a distant fourth.
This was Pheu Thai’s first by-election victory during the current parliamentary term. Candidates from coalition parties have won seven of the nine by-elections held since the March 2019 general election, with the now-defunct opposition Future Forward Party securing one win.
Voter turnout on Sunday dropped significantly from the 2019 general election. Only 52 percent of eligible voters (88,000 people) cast their ballots, compared to 74 percent (120,000) in 2019.
Why did Palang Pracharath lose?
Analysts said Palang Pracharath’s defeat reflected the falling popularity of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government.
The party’s campaign strategy was also partly blamed for the loss. Days before the vote, Palang Pracharath opted for the slogan “If you love Uncle Tu and like Uncle Pom, vote for number 7”, referring to PM Prayut and party leader Prawit Wongsuwan respectively.
“[The defeat] was caused by the government’s lack of legitimacy and failure to tackle COVID-19, as well as the economic downturn following the pandemic,” said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University
Sunday marked the ruling party’s third consecutive by-election defeat in January. The loss in Bangkok was preceded by defeat at the Jan 16 Songkhla and Chumphon by-elections to the Democrat Party, a fellow member of the coalition government.
“Prawit has lost his magic while Prayut should have known that his popularity is not the same [as it was at the 2019 general election],” Yuthaporn said.
However, Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, took a different view, insisting voters just wanted to hand a warning or lesson to Prayut and Palang Pracharath.
“I don’t think the PM’s supporters in Bangkok have turned their backs on him. Instead, they want him to improve or make changes,” said Stithorn.
He added that Palang Pracharath had limited its campaign efforts after realizing that Saranrat could not win.
Contest between allies
Another reason for Palang Pracharath’s loss was competition from other conservative parties. Palang Pracharath lost about 27,000 votes compared to 2019, while new parties like Kla and Thai Pakdee made substantial gains in their election debuts.
The royalist Thai Pakdee acquired almost 6,000 votes while the neo-conservative Kla received more than 20,000. Many of these votes are thought to have come from those who voted for Sira in 2019 and from supporters of the coalition Democrat Party, which drew over 16,000 votes in 2019 but came fourth.
If all votes for the conservative camp were combined, the total would easily surpass that of Pheu Thai’s Surachart.
The Democrats opted out of Sunday’s by-election, citing political etiquette that coalition parties should not contest for a seat lost by an ally. The MP seat was left vacant after the Constitutional Court disqualified Sira over his criminal conviction back in 1995.
Second-place Move Forward’s support dropped by around 5,000 votes compared to the 2019 election, when its predecessor, Future Forward Party, attracted an impressive 25,735 votes to land third.
Meanwhile, Saranrat was not viewed as a strong candidate, and her cause was not helped by Sira’s reputation. His behavior while serving as an MP led to public dissatisfaction and a negative image, which could have rebounded on his wife.
Surprise votes from soldiers
Despite its loss, Move Forward can boast a victory for gaining a substantial number of votes at two polling stations inside a military camp, which helped it win second place.
Unlike previous elections that saw reports of military officers instructing troops who to vote for, soldiers and their families seemed to get the green light to vote freely on Sunday, said political pundit Wanwichit Boonprong from Rangsit University.
“I think the party’s campaign for reform of the military, especially the push to improve the welfare of low-ranking soldiers, touched their hearts,” said Wanwichit.
Move Forward focused on these points during their campaigning in the barracks.
Meanwhile, Yuthaporn questioned whether former junta members in the government still had influence over the military.
For some analysts, the fact that Move Forward managed to secure second place amid low voter turnout indicated its potential to build momentum for the next election in Bangkok.
“The party has the chance to ignite a Move Forward fever in Bangkok,” said Stithorn.
He noted that the party’s candidate Krunphol joined the race just one month before the by-election yet managed to gain as much support as candidates who have built their base in the constituency for 20 years.
Move Forward’s gain could put Pheu Thai at a disadvantage in the next national polls as the two parties share the same support base, said the analyst.
Extinction in Bangkok?
After such a devastating loss, Palang Pracharath’s prospects in the next election are uncertain, say critics, who now expect more MPs to defect from the party.
“I’m convinced that the party could win fewer MP seats in Bangkok than they expect – or that they could even become extinct [in the city],” Wanwichit said.
For him, new parties like Kla and Sarng Anacot Thai, formed by former economic ministers in the current government, could be more appealing to Bangkok voters. Even the Democrats, who failed to win any Bangkok MP seats in 2019, could become attractive again.
“Palang Pracharath has lost its appeal and failed to deliver its campaign promises,” said the analyst.
“Even if the ruling party continues supporting Prayut as its PM candidate [at the next general election], other parties such as Kla or the ultra-rightist Thai Pakdee can do the same. So, it will have to share the same support base with the two other parties.”
The 2019 general election saw Palang Pracharath win most MP seats in Bangkok with 12, while Pheu Thai and Future Forward each won nine.
Meanwhile, political analyst and former Ramkhamhaeng University rector Sukhum Nuansakun expects Palang Pracharath to suffer in the next general election, shrinking to become a middle-sized party.
Delay for gubernatorial vote
Observers are convinced that the ruling party’s big loss in Bangkok could further delay the next gubernatorial election, which had been expected in the middle of this year. They said those in power would not allow the election to go ahead until they are certain of securing a win.
“But the later the election is held, the more damage for Prayut and the ruling party,” said Wanwichit.
Holding it early could help the party evaluate Bangkok’s political landscape and give clues on how to make a comeback in the national election, he added.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk