11 July 2024

Thailand’s political situation used to be straightforward in the recent past. The Democrats being up against the Shinawatra camp made elections easy to contest and predict. The former were guaranteed solid control of the South, whereas the latter would dominate the North and Northeast. Bangkok swung between them.

Not any more.

Last weekend’s by-elections in the South showcased fierce battles between the Democrat and Palang Pracharath parties, both in the government coalition. The region’s ideological leaning appeared unchanged and clear, with candidates associated with “the other side” presenting anything but a threat.

The breakdown of results confirms the interesting situation. Democrat candidates won while Palang Pracharath runners also scored big. Move Forward competitors finished nowhere near their main rivals.

If the Democrat versus Palang Pracharath showdown in Songkhla and Chumphon was boxing, one former champion, down but not out, was keen to reclaim past glory. Standing in the way was someone fresh and strong, but not without a weak spot. The southern contests were a stepping stone to the grand final, which is the next general election.

History is on the Democrats’ side, but Palang Pracharath wants to create new history. The former has proved time and again that they always bounced back at the expense of “extremists” or “special-task parties” like Samakhi Tham (the Justice Unity Party). The latter is eager to show that it is here to stay, that the humbling of the Democrats in the previous election in Bangkok and the South is neither a fluke nor exploitation of flash-in-the-pan political sentiment.

So, general election campaigns will be fiery between the two. For all that “We are friends again after the by-elections are over” rhetoric, what happened in Songkhla and Chumphon is just a glimpse of what will certainly occur when both parties’ candidates have to cross swords all across the country, particularly in Bangkok and all southern provinces.

Bangkok by-election a crucial popularity contest for Thailand’s national parties

The Democrats have been buoyed by a recent opinion poll, conducted last year by the Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. The STOU poll showed that Democrat leader Jurin Laksanawisit was the most popular politician among Bangkok residents, having more admirers than even Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Sudarat Keyuraphan, who came second and third respectively, and leaving Pheu Thai’s new presenter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, so far behind in the large-scale popularity survey of 12,350 people. Bangkok ditched the Democrats in the last general election, with Future Forward (now Move Forward) and Palang Pracharath being embraced as new kids in town.

But if the southern by-elections laid bare problems in the government bloc, wait until Pheu Thai and Move Forward have to compete against each other. The two opposition parties have the same trouble as the Democrats and Palang Pracharath _ they will have to fight for the same market, which is not growing.

Move Forward’s only chance to grow or at least maintain its current size is to snatch a good portion of the market share from Pheu Thai. Thailand’s political divide prevents the majority of voters from crossing the ideological line. If one doesn’t mark his or her ballot for Pheu Thai, it has to be for Move Forward. It’s as simple as that.

Pheu Thai has been quietly bitter ever since Move Forward cashed in on the dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party just before the previous election. Another motive to contain Move Forward must have to do with future legislative efforts that the latter could be inclined to torpedo, particularly if they involve individuals like Thaksin or Yingluck Shinawatra.

So far, Prayut Chan-o-cha being the common enemy has kept all kinds of conflicts under the rug. But the stakes of both Pheu Thai and Move Forward will be too high in a general election.

In the big picture, the ideological battle line remains probably clear-cut. Songkhla and Chumphon have apparently pulled back much of the adoration given to Future Forward (now Move Forward) in the 2019 election. In Songkhla, the party received 6,000 fewer votes than then. It was more or less the same in Chumphon. Both the Democrat and Palang Pracharath parties won significantly-bigger support than in the last general election in Songkhla. The Democrats also saw a big boost in Chumphon, where backing for Palang Pracharath, though still sizeable, is no cause for celebration.

But hidden in the big picture are red oceans, where much of the blood will come from “friendly” fish turning on one another when Thais nationwide go to the polls next time.

By Tulsathit Taptim