Time for newcomers or will old faces return as provinces go to vote?
The “new normal” was adopted to fight COVID-19, but Thailand’s local elections next month will likely see the “old normal” – a ballot where political dynasties and patronage politics still dominate.
Provincial voters will be electing their local administrators for the first time since 2012, after all local government elections were suspended following the 2014 military coup.
Analysts believe voters will be enthusiastic, but they expect little will have changed in the local political landscape. Influential families and their patronage networks will still dominate and determine the election results.
Registration of candidates for the posts of chairmen and members of provincial administration organisations (PAO) in 76 provinces kicked off last week for an election scheduled for December 20. Candidates for local government organisations are allowed to contest independently, yet many big-name candidates are either affiliated to political parties or come from politically active families.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, expects influential political groups and parties to stamp their mark on the upcoming polls, despite a tougher new law passed to prevent inequality among candidates.
Under Article 34 of the 2019 Election for Local Councils or Local Management Act, incumbent political officials, MPs, senators or other government appointees are prohibited from campaigning for or obstructing any local election candidate. Even a simple “like” or share on social media can violate this law, the Election Commission has warned.
Titipol doubts it will blunt the power of Thailand’s traditional patronage-based politics.
“The political landscape will not change, and neither will electoral behaviour. The contest will be overshadowed by old politicians as usual. It will be the same old politics,” he said.
Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said 80 per cent of local politics is dominated by a network of dynasties with deep roots in local communities.
Major political outfits, including the Progressive Movement – a reincarnation of the disbanded Future Forward Party – have joined the race. But most of these parties, with the exception of Progressive Movement, have avoided breaking the law by having their candidates run independently.
The ruling Palang Pracharath Party has pulled out over uncertainty about campaigning rules under Article 34 and fear of breaking the law, candidates tied to the party are not running under its banner.
However, old dynasties are still ruling the roost.
Among the most powerful are political veteran Newin Chidchob’s family which reigns in the lower Northeast, and the Khunpluem dynasty of the late Somchai “Kamnan Poh” (the “godfather of Chonburi”) that stands strong in the East.
In the South, a multitude of candidates are tied with the Democrat Party, while the Central region is still dominated by the powerful network of late former premier Banharn Silpa-archa.
In Samut Prakan, former singer Nantida Kaewbuasai is making her political debut under the umbrella of the Asavahame family, which has clung to power for decades. Nanthida was once married to Chonsawat Asavahame, a former PAO chief and now chairman of the Samut Prakan Chamber of Commerce.
Rising from the ashes
However, the main focus will be on the Progressive Movement, which is hoping for an electoral rebirth from the ashes of the Future Forward Party, whose dissolution earlier this year saw its executives banned from politics for 10 years.
Analysts say local polls are now its best route forward, as members of the dissolved party can legally support candidates.
The Progressive Movement will field candidates in 41 provinces in a bid to repeat the success of Future Forward, which came in third in the March 2019 general elections, driven by mainly young voters.
The group, campaigning under the slogan “Changing Thailand Starts at Home”, believes it can shake up local politics and replace dynasty-based elections with policy-based campaigning. It promises to address pertinent issues such as mass-transit projects, tourism, the environment and education to win voter support.
However, Titipol said new-face candidates will find it tough to break through against the patronage system and local rivals who enjoy strong ties with national politicians.
“The old and existing powers [in local strongholds] have a higher chance of winning. It’s not a battle of strategy or policies [like the Progressive Movement will wage],” Titipol said.
Meanwhile, observers doubt the ongoing youth-led protests against the PM Prayut Chan-o-cha government will have an effect on the outcome of local polls.
Titipol said the scale of the anti-government movement is limited and many of the protesters are under 18 and still not eligible to vote.
Yuthaporn agrees, saying that unlike the national election, young voters will have little effect on the local polls, where people always vote for familiar faces.
Maybe times have changed
Six laws on local elections went into effect in April 2019; however provincial polls having been postponed several times by both post-coup Prayut governments.
Local elections have an important bearing on the country’s national politics.
Yuthaporn said local politicians and PAO chiefs have always had close relations with national politicians and political parties. Among other things, they canvas votes for national politicians during general elections.
He added that since PAO elections cover the entire province, the results offer an indication of each parties’ popularity and can predict winners in the national polls.
“If a party’s candidate or canvasser wins the [PAO] election, its candidate at the national level likely gains an advantage that often translates into victory,” Yuthaporn said.
Meanwhile, PAOs are handed annual funding of about Bt80 billion from the Bt800 billion earmarked in the budget for all local administrations – a huge sum that attracts many politicians.
A high turnout is expected next month, after local voters were starved of the right to pick their representatives for eight years.
A survey by the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida Poll) found that a large majority (82.47 per cent) of voters said they would exercise their ballot on December 20.
Almost as many (79.23 per cent) said they wanted a PAO chairperson who is independent rather than linked to a political party or group.
Analysts said the findings indicate voters are eager to select their own representatives after those appointed by the junta amid the suspension of local elections had failed to meet their demands.
The government is planning to hold local elections at other levels later, including for tambon administration organisations, municipalities and special administrative areas such as Metropolitan Bangkok and Pattaya City.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk