Isaan voters once again hold keys to political power in Thailand

(Photo by Thai PBS)

Major political parties are setting their sights on the Northeast as local elections loom, paving the way for a national vote expected next year.

Pheu Thai and Move Forward, the main opposition parties, both have big plans for the country’s most populous region.

Move Forward announced plans to double the incomes of northeasterners in 10 years, at its general meeting on October 16 in Khon Kaen, a major northeastern city. Addressing the meeting, party leader Pita Limjaroenrat promised to pull the region out of what he called “the curse of development ban”.

He also told delegates he was ready to become Move Forward’s prime ministerial candidate for the next election, which analysts say could fall in the latter half of next year.

Fighting for votes

Meanwhile, Pheu Thai is due to hold its general meeting on October 28, also in Khon Kaen, on the theme of “Tomorrow for Thais” — a play on the words “pheu Thai”, literally “for Thais”.

The party is gearing up for the big event with an advertising campaign promising “Pheu Thai’s tomorrow for new lives of the people”.

Also known as Isaan, the Northeast is the country’s second poorest region after the North in terms of household incomes. Northeasterners earn an average of Bt20,600 per month, compared to the national average of Bt26,018 – or Bt20,269 in the North, Bt25,647 in the South, 25,782 in the Central Region, and Bt37,751 for Bangkok Metropolis, according to the National Statistical Office.

Move Forward and Pheu Thai candidates are contesting upcoming local elections for chiefs and members of tambon administrative organizations all over the country, due on November 28.

The ruling Palang Pracharath Party is not fielding any candidates – at least officially. This is apparently to avoid possible legal action stemming from the law that bans political officeholders from “acting in a way that can benefit or harm any local election candidate”.

Control of local administrative organizations is viewed as an important springboard for political parties to win a national vote.

Why the Northeast?

The Northeast boasts the highest number of MP seats, thanks to its large population — 22 million or almost one-third of Thailand’s population of around 69 million.

That explains why the Northeast is attractive to any political party. Claiming the most MP seats in the region raises the chance of winning a general election and hence the likelihood of forming the next government.

At the last general election, in March 2019, 116 of the total 350 constituency MPs came from the Northeast’s 20 provinces.

That number fell from 126 at the 2011 election, after the Election Commission rejigged constituencies before the 2019 election.

In the next election, the number of constituency MPs will be increased to 400, so the single-MP constituencies will be rearranged once again.

And with the two-ballot voting system recently restored, constituency MPs will play a greater role in helping political parties to win a general election.

Parties will be forced to focus more on constituency MPs, particularly Move Forward, which will be at a disadvantage under the new electoral system. Its earlier incarnation as the now-disbanded Future Forward Party surprisingly came third in its electoral debut in 2019, benefiting from the single-ballot system adopted for the first time in Thailand.

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Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s words to supporters in the South last week were interpreted by many as a sign he intends to seek another term in office. “I and my team are all working for people to the best of our ability.

‘Important stronghold’

“Isaan is an important stronghold of constituency MPs. Almost half of the total number MPs are from the region. Its population size will also affect the number of party-list MPs,” noted Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU).

“Any political party that wins most [MP seats] in Isaan has a high chance of becoming the overall winner and forming a government,” the analyst said.

He pointed to the success of political parties led by or linked with fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra — from the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power to their successor, Pheu Thai. The first two won up to 90 percent of the region’s MP seats, while Pheu Thai currently holds about 70 percent.

At the 2011 general election, Pheu Thai swept into power after claiming 104 of the 126 MP seats up for grabs in the Northeast.

Looking for opportunities

Key figures from both the government and opposition have visited the Northeast recently to woo support from local voters, with their sights set on the region’s rich bounty of MP seats.

Move Forward’s heavyweights, including the party leader himself, gathered in Khon Kaen for the party’s general meeting. They blamed structural flaws and “unfair state policies” for the problems facing Isaan people, including high debt levels and poverty.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Premier Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also the Palang Pracharath leader, recently made separate visits to northeastern provinces, covering Khon Kaen, Ubon Ratchathani and Nakhon Ratchasima.

But STOU’s Yuthaporn is convinced that, despite the efforts of other parties, Pheu Thai will again win the most MP seats in Isaan at the next election, possibly even improving on its performance last time.

In the 2019 polls, Pheu Thai won 84 MP seats in the Northeast, far more than any other party. In comparison, Palang Pracharath has 11 MPs from the region and Future Forward only one.

Thaksin ‘still popular’

“It won’t be easy to snatch seats occupied by Pheu Thai,” warned Yuthaporn. “This is thanks to Thaksin’s strong support base in the region, built since his first election campaign with the Thai Rak Thai Party 20 years ago.”

Thaksin has maintained his grip on Pheu Thai, focusing on development projects for the Northeast, a large and efficient network of political canvassers, and local politicians loyal to him and the party.

Its rivals may be able to prise some Isaan seats away from Pheu Thai, but Yuthaporn is convinced that most voters won’t switch sides.

“Isaan voters still oppose the junta and Prayut. You can see this in the March 2019 [election] result as well as protests against Prayut during his visits,” he added.

The academic said recent developments attested to Thaksin’s enduring popularity in the Northeast, where Pheu Thai still has the upper hand over other parties.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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