Progressive Movement handed hard lesson as old patronage politics dominates local elections
The outcome of Sunday’s local elections was little different from previous polls, despite being the first to be held in Thailand since 2012. As expected, “Baan Yai” or “big house” political dynasties dominated the contests, leaving no room for newcomers.
Most candidates who won seats in the Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO) polls are either linked to established political parties, are relatives of veteran politicians, or belong to local political dynasties.
This leads to the question of whether decentralisation can ever work in Thailand, since the same old political faces will retain control of the Bt91 billion budget allocated to the provinces for fiscal 2021. The provincial budget accounts for 2.8 per cent of the Bt3.2 trillion national budget.
‘Old faces’ crush new contenders
Sunday saw voters in 76 provinces outside Bangkok select their PAO chiefs and legislators for the first time in eight years. All local government elections were suspended following the 2014 military coup.
PAO chiefs are responsible for preparing local infrastructure and annual spending plans, while PAO members form the legislature – issuing local regulations, approving development and budget plans, and scrutinising local administrators.
Just over 60 per cent of Thailand’s 46.6 million voters turned up to cast ballots, about 20 per cent less than the Election Commission’s target.
Tough campaigning rules set by the 2019 Election for Local Councils or Local Management Act meant only Pheu Thai, the Democrat Party and Progressive Forward fielded candidates under their own banners.
However, many local politicians sidestepped the rules by contesting under newly-formed groups whose names resembled their political parties. Others ran independently, though their close ties with political parties or clans were an open secret.
Unratified results show that winners in many provinces hail from old political families. For example, the Khunpluem dynasty of the late Somchai “Kamnan Poh” – the so-called godfather of Chon Buri – is standing strong in the east, with his son Wittaya poised to retain his post.
In Samut Prakan, former singer Nantida Kaewbuasai won under the umbrella of the Asavahame family, which has held power in the province for decades.
In Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok, the Sasomsub political dynasty is set to retain control thanks to Jirawat Sasomsub’s win. Jirawat is the son of Chaiya, a former commerce mister and veteran politician who died just a week before the election.
In Sa Kaeo to the east, the Thienthong family cemented its grip after Kwanruean, a sister-in-law of Pheu Thai veteran Snoh Thienthong, won the vote.
Meanwhile sitting PAO chiefs at the end of their terms were re-elected in at least 34 provinces.
Though the core coalition Palang Pracharath Party fielded no candidates so as to avoid breaking the law, politicians allied with the party won in more than 20 provinces – including Chon Buri, Phayao, Chai Nat and Kamphaeng Phet.
Candidates from the leading opposition party, Pheu Thai, came top in nine out of the 25 provinces they contested. The wins came in Pheu Thai’s strongholds in the North and Northeast, including the city of Chiang Mai, hometown of fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s clan.
Meanwhile, the upstart Progressive Movement of young tycoon-turned-politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit failed to secure a single seat despite registering candidates in 42 provinces.
The newly formed Progressive Movement, in its first provincial race, had been hoping for an electoral rebirth after its previous incarnation, the Future Forward Party, was disbanded.
Future Forward came third in the March 2019 general elections but was dissolved by a court ruling earlier this year that also saw its executives banned from politics for 10 years.
However, its dream of repeating that success and deposing the dynasties was shattered when not one of its candidates got elected.
The Progressive Movement campaigned on a platform of decentralisation with the slogan “Changing Thailand Starts at Home”, believing policy-based campaigning would shake up local politics.
Experts offered a variety of reasons for their failed debut in local politics.
Veerasak Kruethep, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, said it was premature to conclude the Progressive Movement’s popularity was waning.
He believes the group has yet to make its presence felt in local communities, which is why its policies failed to attract voters.
“As a newly founded political outfit, Progressive Movement may lack the deep-rooted ‘canvassing’ network by which political values are usually spread in Thai society,” he said in a Facebook post.
Moreover, voters see national politics differently from local politics.
“Politics at the national stage involves ideologies or reforms, but on the local level, it is about daily life. So [at the local level] they vote for familiar faces perceived as dependable candidates who will work to improve their quality of life,” Veerasak continued.
This is one of the main factors why “old faces” have a strong advantage over new ones, he added.
Phichit Likhitkitsombun, a former economics lecturer at Thammasat University, agrees.
He suggested that the movement consider Sunday’s results as a lesson that local politics is very different from national politics.
“In local elections, the patronage system of give-and-take is deeply rooted in people’s lives. The old generation still dominates local politics as ideology is not important at this level,” the academic said in a Facebook post.
“This confirms academics’ observation that changes in Thai society always start from the top, from the national level down to the local level, not the other way around,” he added.
The Progressive Movement’s defeat did not surprise Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. He said it was to be expected, since voters in local polls tend to choose familiar faces with political clout who work for communities. By contrast, Progressive Movement candidates were relatively unknown to local voters.
“I think the group failed to ‘x-ray’ the structure of local politics and voters’ behaviour,” Yuthaporn said.
Their candidates could not compete with rivals who boasted long experience in the communities or were even former PAO chiefs, he said.
“The door is essentially shut to new faces when the caretakers have been [in office] for so long,” he said.
The post-coup government allowed former PAO chiefs to stay on in caretaker roles after their four-year terms ended, which kept them in the post for seven years in total.
The Progressive Movement may have been right to address the problem of “centralised power”, but they were not able to relay that message to voters or make them understand, the academic added.
The monarchy issue
Some of the movement’s opponents linked Sunday’s crushing defeat to its stance on the monarchy.
“The PAO results nationwide prove that people shun those who insult, defame or try to overthrow the monarchy,” staunch royalist Warong Dechgitvigrom posted on Facebook.
He added that it is time for anti-establishment protesters to go home as Thais would only tolerate a ruling system with the King as head of state – and never a communist state or republic.
Thanathorn, who has voiced support for the anti-establishment protesters, admitted his group’s views on the monarchy had affected Sunday’s election results.
He said Thai society was now divided between those who are offended by calls for monarchy reform and those in favour.
“Only through proper reform can the relationship between the monarchy and the people be restored,” he insisted.
Reform of the monarchy is one of three demands being made by the youth-led anti-establishment movement, along with the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and rewriting the Constitution to make it more inclusive and democratic.
The fresh-faced Thanathorn apologised to his supporters for Sunday’s loss and said his group had not worked hard enough to have a strong influence on society.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk