11 July 2024

To varying degrees, all key players in Thai politics can be both optimistic and apprehensive at the same time. While politicians regard themselves as second to none at keeping their cards close to their chests, they may have forgotten that the voting public has the same capability, which could be unleashed in the next election.

What will the Thai “silent majority” do?

The answer to the question, which is probably not resounding at the moment but must have been haunting most politicians, is wait and see. The only thing apparently certain is the size of that majority. A staggering number of Thais, according to an opinion poll, seem still undecided about who should be their next prime minister, although public choices for political parties are clearer. And that is not the only confusing sign.

An officially scheduled generation election is way more than a year away, but everyone is drumming up the significance of the next showdown at the ballot booths, whether it comes earlier than expected or not. The media, pollsters and rival politicians are all talking about it, mostly with partisan influences. One thing they agree upon is that nothing is written in stone.

One polling agency is even contradicting itself. Only a few days ago, NIDA said its survey had found that a majority of Thais surveyed wanted Prayut Chan-o-cha to leave politics, let alone the prime ministerial post, in the next general election. Shortly afterward, another NIDA survey identified him as the most preferred choice for prime minister, ahead of key opposition figures.

What is remarkable in the latter NIDA poll, however, is that the most overwhelming responses to the question of who should be the next prime minister are “I don’t know.” The people who said this represented 32.61% of 2,018 Thais surveyed. Prayut actually came second in the opinion poll, winning 17.54% of support and leading Sudarat Keyuraphan and Pita Limjaroenrat who were almost neck to neck with over 11% each.

Pheu Thai was the most popular political party in the survey, yet its leaders’ names were nowhere near the top of the list of prime ministerial choices. Palang Pracharath, which is backing Prayut now, is way down the list. So, according to the latest NIDA poll, Prayut should be the next prime minister with Pheu Thai as the main ruling party while Palang Pracharath must take a place in the opposition bloc.

There is the possibility that many responders to the NIDA poll already had someone in mind as their preferred prime minister, but were too shy to tell the pollsters who, hence the big size of the silent majority. No matter what the reasons, every political player can be both hopeful and scared. Prayut can be afraid that the silent majority might swing toward Sudarat or Pita, sufficiently enough to tip the scale. Sudarat and Pita, meanwhile, have to fear that the gap can even widen if a lot in the silent majority prefer the status quo to drastic changes.

Prayut can also hope that Palang Pracharath, which has shown a tendency to drift away from him, will stick around because he may be its best hope after all. Pheu Thai, however, can be optimistic about cutting a deal with Palang Pracharath and neutralize Prayut and the Senate and downgrade the “frenemy” Move Forward Party in the process. Palang Pracharath, meanwhile, must be afraid it will get smaller but will seek to be a major decisive variable in Thai politics.

As Thailand edges towards the next election, the normally clear-cut ideological line can become a blur. Political alliances can be fragile and rivalries can be deceptive. Adding to that is the unpredictable “silent majority.” This enormous voting portion will look at many things, notably how the COVID-19 situation will pan out, how the flooding crisis is tackled, and how genuine public interests, in general, are served. Political fights, cut-throat and vociferous as they are, must be watched and processed through perspectives different from those of rival propagandists.

The silent majority has shown once or twice in modern political history that it can spring a big surprise. And there is perhaps no better time to do so again than in the next election.

By Tulsathit Taptim