In this webinar, Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood examines the policies that the Phalang Pracharat Party has developed in an effort to ensure its victory in Thailand’s next national elections.
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Monday, 23 August 2021 – Professor Punchada began her remarks by noting that the National Council for Peace and Order junta that governed Thailand during 2014-2019 designed mechanisms to ensure its long-term hold on power, even following elections. Nevertheless, it now seems impossible that the elected government headed by the former junta’s leader, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, will be able to remain in power for a full four years, till the end of its term in 2023. Instead, it is likely that Thai voters will go to polls in either early or mid-2022.
Five factors suggest the likelihood of early elections in Thailand, and Professor Punchada addressed each of these factors in turn.
1. Anti-government protests. Observers have understood the protests provoked by the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February of 2020 and the abduction of Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the following June in terms of a generational divide in Thailand. Because these protests mainly involved younger people, and especially secondary-school and university students, they appeared unlikely to bring change. But 2021 has seen a wider range of groups protesting. These groups include students from less elite institutions and groups led by prominent former Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt figures. These groups have objectives different to those of the students who spearheaded the protests of last year. They are not, for example, calling for the reform of the Thai monarchy. They are more narrowly focused on Prime Minister Prayut, on his government’s performance, and on calling for him to leave office. At the same time, the protests of this year have been more violent than those of last year. Should this violence continue, the result may be both greater participation in protests and greater political instability.
2. The Covid-19 pandemic. This year has seen the Prayut government mismanage Thailand’s response to the pandemic, especially in the area of vaccine distribution. The government has adopted a confusing range of measures. There have been perceptions of favouritism in the distribution of vaccines. One demand of anti-government protestors has been for the greater availability of mRNA vaccines for Thais.
3. A possible pending change in the electoral system. In the 2019 elections, Thailand used a system in which voters cast a single ballot, with the results determining both the outcome of constituency-level races and the allocation of party-list seats in the parliament. This system worked to the disadvantage of the Phuea Thai Party, which now leads the parliamentary opposition to the Prayut government. The country may now once more adopt the system in which voters cast two ballots, one for a constituency member of parliament and one for a party. Phalang Pracharat, the core party in the coalition supporting Prime Minister Prayut, believes that it has now built up sufficient electoral networks — at the expense of Phuea Tha — to benefit from re-adoption of the latter system.
4. Competition among parties in the ruling coalition in the effort to vaccinate Thais. The Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines are those most readily available in Thailand. (Pfizer, Sinopharm and Moderna vaccines are considered “alternative” vaccines — available largely on the private market, though there has been some donation of Sinopharm vaccine for public distribution.) Disproportionately large supplies of vaccine have been made available in the Bhumjaithai Party’s electoral base of Buriram Province. The same party, which controls the Ministry of Public Health, has also organized mass vaccination at the Bang Sue Grand Station in Bangkok in an effort to win voters’ favour before possible elections. Its coalition partner Phalang Pracharat has sought to do likewise through the Ministry of Labour, which it controls.
5. The passage of the 2022 budget. Critics of the proposed budget focused on the Central Fund” and on the difficulty of monitoring the use to which the prime minister might put that fund — whether really to battle the pandemic or to serve other, perhaps more directly political, ends. But the passage of the 2022 budget means that the government is now ready to go to the polls.
Professor Punchada also observed that the early-September no confidence debate in parliament, targeting the prime minister and five of his ministers, would give the opposition the chance to highlight the Prayut government’s failures. At the same time, it would allow the government to explain its performance. The debate would prove an opportunity to observe the relative unity and cohesion of the ruling coalition and of the opposition.
To conclude her prepared remarks, Professor Punchada asked who would be Thailand’s prime minister following elections in 2022 and whether General Prayut would remain in office. While there have been many rumours, including some concerning the possibility of a royally appointed premier, she concluded that it was perhaps the case that Phalang Pracharat Party leader General Prawit Wongsuwan alone knew the answers to these questions.
Participants’ questions following the conclusion of Professor Punchada’s prepared remarks addressed reports of a schism between the opposition Phuea Thai and Move Forward Parties, the Phalang Pracharat Party’s possible overconfidence concerning its electoral prospects, rumours about cooperation between the Phuea Thai and Phalang Pracharat Parties following elections, and the identity of figures who might replace General Prayut as premier. Participants in the webinar also asked about the current role of civil society in promoting a more democratic atmosphere in Thailand and of the Buddhist Sangha in social change, the respective responsibility of demonstrators and of the police in the violence that has accompanied recent protests, and the possibility that the violence might turn Thai popular opinion against the pro-democracy demonstrators.