Seminar on “Religion and Religiosity in Thai Elections: Irrelevant No Longer”

In this hybrid seminar, Dr Tomas Larsson delivered a talk on the connection between religions and elections in Thailand.


20 September 2022, Tuesday – This seminar examined whether religious identity and religiosity matter in Thai elections. Scholars and pundits have long presumed that neither political parties nor voters in Thailand regard religion as politically salient. Dr Tomas Larsson, Associate Professor of the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, sought to challenge this conventional wisdom by examining contemporary Thai politics through the lens of religion and religiosity, using data collected in the 2019 general election and the May 2022 Bangkok Governor election, and election of Bangkok Metropolitan Administrative Council. The seminar attracted the interest of 57 attendees, both online via Zoom, and in person.

Speaker Dr Tomas Larsson with moderator Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Larsson was first intrigued to read the headlines in Thai news media which highlighted the emergence of political parties that were labelled as Buddhist parties in the 2019 general election. One of those parties even advocated that Buddhist teachings should be the basis of public policy and adopted this ideology as the campaign slogan. The classic literature in comparative politics identifies religion as politically salient in many countries around the world. However, the existing literature on religion and politics in Thailand have differing views.

On the one hand, Dr Larsson discovered that many studies emphasize the centrality of Buddhism and Buddhist ideas in the context of political legitimation in Thailand. On the other hand, scholars have downplayed or ignored religious factors in Thai electoral politics. Addressing this gap in knowledge, the speaker was interested in how religion and religiosity influence vote choices and how Thai political parties are differentiated in relation to religious affairs. With different research teams, Dr Larsson looked at the 2019 general election and the May 2022 Bangkok elections.

Dr Larsson’s conceptual framework imagines the religion-nationalism nexus as playing out along a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, there is “religious nationalism” with strong, ideological and institutional links between the state and one religion in particular – Buddhism. At the other end, there is “secular nationalism” that advocates for the separation of religion and state. In the middle of the spectrum, there is “civil-religious nationalism” which advocates for the state to adopt a benign, accommodating stance towards different religious communities. Dr Larsson argued that most Thai political parties fall into a form of civil-religious nationalism.

By looking at the word frequency that appeared in the materials published on party platforms, Dr Larsson discovered that Palang Pracharath, which would otherwise be assumed as a pro-Buddhist party, made no mention of religion. Both Phaendin Tham and Pheu Thai frequently mentioned state patronage of religion and emphasis on Buddhism as a majority religion. Future Forward mentioned religion but only to underscore the point that people should not be discriminated on the basis of their religion.

Dr Larsson went on to explain the comparative study of electoral systems (CSES) survey organised by the KPI in 2019. By observing 1,537 respondents, the survey found that more religious voters were more likely to support pro-military parties such as Palang Pracharath and its closest allies. Less religious voters were more likely to support anti-military parties, while religious minorities were politically divided. One interpretation of these results is that continued military influence in politics in Thailand has a religious base.

The speaker then explored several unexpected findings from the research. Close to 99 per cent of Pheu Thai supporters were identified as Buddhist compared to 84 per cent of Palang Pracharath voters. Surprisingly, a much higher proportion of Muslims and Protestants voted for Palang Pracharath. In terms of religious beliefs, Palang Pracharath topped the chart while Future Forward is popular among small numbers of voters who are not religious. These findings piqued the interest of the speaker, thus he and his team set up a statistical analysis to capture the nature of the main political division by characterising the 2019 general election into pro-Prayut bloc and Pro-democracy bloc. The speaker found that Buddhist voters were 20 per cent less likely than a non-Buddhist voter to vote for a pro-Prayut party. The speaker was not entirely satisfied with the survey, since the question of belonging is more fine-grained for Christians than for Buddhists, and the belief question gives no insight into what is believed.

Dr Larsson then moved on to study the prevalence of religious nationalism among Bangkok voters. Dr Larsson noticed that some candidates were very keen to portray themselves through campaign materials, Facebook feeds and news stories, as religiously pious and tolerant towards minorities. The speaker did a pilot survey with 800 eligible and representative Bangkok voters with questions adapted to Thai religious context. The survey questions had three dimensions namely beliefs, public practice, and private practice.

The winner of the Bangkok governor race, Chadchart Sitthipunt, certainly attracted Muslim voters. Around 8 per cent of the votes for Chadchart are Muslim voters. Sakoltee Patthiyakul, an incumbent Deputy Governor affiliated with the Palang Pracharath, won almost 20 per cent of the Muslim voters. It was also interesting to discover that there is little support for Buddhist nationalism in Bangkok. The majority of Bangkok voters also answered in the survey that being a Buddhist is not important enough to be considered a true Thai. 

Dr Larsson concluded his survey that there is no real relationship between Buddhist nationalism and religiosity. The conservatives are not divided in their views on royal nationalism but quite divided in the religious nationalism. Therefore, he suggests that the political salience of religion in electoral politics in Thailand requires further studies. The question-and-answer section at the conclusion of the seminar covered specific research methodologies, the correlation between political leadership and shape of nationalism, political preferences of Muslim voters in Bangkok, and the polarisation of nationalism and politics.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)