In this webinar, Dr James Ockey and Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood examined the development and adaptations of political parties in Thailand. Drawing on the speakers’ book manuscript on stability, change, institutionalization and evolution in the Thai political-party system, the webinar seeks to shed light on the current state and future of Thailand’s major parties.
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
14 March 2022, Monday – The webinar drew on the speakers’ book manuscript on Thai political-party system, in preparation for submission to ISEAS Publishing.
Dr Ockey spoke about the historical evolution of political parties in Thailand. He introduced the broad academic literature on the evolution of political parties globally. This literature stresses that early political parties were cadre-style parties, dominated by legislators. Mass-style parties soon arose, however, as existing organizations sought to have a voice in parliaments. Over time, the two models of parties began to converge, with their ideological emphases growing weaker. Catch-all-style parties thus emerged. These parties were more bureaucratic and enjoyed weaker loyalty from members. Over time, they evolved into cartel-style parties, which often received government subsidies and served as political brokers. The next stage in the development of political parties led to mediatized parties, in which branches and membership were less important; these parties communicated with supporters via the media. Finally, recent times have seen the emergence of digital parties, characterized by the use of the Internet to structure parties, strong leaders, committed grass roots, and few structures between parties’ leadership and the grass roots.
Dr Ockey then turned to the Thai case. In Thailand, political factions were the dominant feature of the cadre-style party, which long stood at the centre of the study of political parties in the country. Influential analysis of the Thai Rak Thai Party, founded in the late 1990s, saw it, however, as an “electoral professional party”, resembling a cartel-style party.
Dr Ockey divided the evolution of Thai political parties into periods: the Pre-Party Era, 1932-1944; the Early Cadre Party Era, 1944-1955; the State Party Cadre Era, 1955-1971; the Civilianized Cadre Party Era, 1974-1980s. That last era was followed in the 1980s and 1990s by an era of increasingly elaborate cadre parties. And, this trajectory notwithstanding, Thailand’s Political Party Act of 1968 was grounded in an idealized vision of mass parties (except insofar as such parties might embrace left-wing ideologies). Nevertheless, the civilianized cadre parties of the period that followed the promulgation of the act were neither mass nor catch-all parties. The more elaborate cadre parties that subsequently emerged had larger factions and nested factions.
Thailand’s 1997 Constitution included provisions meant to reset the political-party system, but the real breakthrough came four years later, Dr Ockey said, with the electoral victory of the Thai Rak Thai Party. It was very much centred on its leadership and run by political professionals. It also enjoyed government subsidies. Thai Rak Thai and its successors won all elections for thirteen years. Many other parties tried to imitate it, but they did not imitate its structure. Thai Rak Thai also attached great importance to public relations; it moved in the direction of becoming a mediatized party.
Thailand has in most recent times seen the emergence of a digital party, Dr Ockey said. This party was the now dissolved Future Forward Party with its strong presence on the Internet and its prominent leader. But the party proved costly to manage—a factor that led it its downfall at the hands of the courts.
Dr Ockey concluded his comments by arguing that, save for the Bhumjaithai Party, virtually all Thai parties have now collapsed, as money has been drained out of the political-party system.
In her own remarks to the webinar, Dr Punchada focused on the current state of the Thai political-party system, on likely developments in the next six months and on what might happen in the country’s next general election. As the Prayut Chan-ocha government has a good chance of lasting its full four-year term, the likelihood is that that election will occur next year.
Dr Punchada noted that Thailand’s 2017 Constitution sought to institutionalize political parties by promoting cartel-style parties by means of government subsidies, requirements concerning branches and primaries to select candidates, and other measures. Some large parties set up merely the minimum number of branches to comply with the law, while other parties set up large numbers of branches to secure government funding. Similarly, politicians themselves in many cases paid the membership fees of many of their parties’ members in order to pad membership rosters.
What resulted in practice, Dr Punchada argued, was weak party institutionalization, a situation that resembled that before the promulgation of the 1997 Constitution. For example, the Phalang Pracharat Party, the core party in the current ruling coalition, has some twenty-five factions. Like other parties, it has made little effort to increase its members.
Dr Punchada discussed of the current state of Thailand’s major parties.
• A number of factions of Phalang Pracharat have broken off to start new parties. The technocrat faction has launched the Sang Anakhot Thai Party. The faction loyal to Phalang Pracharat’s former secretary-general Thammanat Prompao has moved to the Thai Economy Party. And the Ruamthai Sangchat Party is a third party whose members have left Phalang Pracharat, albeit with the intention of supporting Prime Minister Prayut and serving as a Phalang Pracharat proxy party.
• The Phuea Thai Party, a successor party to Thai Rak Thai, has also seen party-switching, with its former leader Sudarat Keyuraphan having left to form the Thai Sang Thai Party. This new party may compete effectively with Phuea Thai in Bangkok.
• The Democrat Party has seen splits. The group associated with the People’s Democratic Reform Council protests of 2015 joined Phalang Pracharat before the 2019 election. Former Democrat deputy leader Suthep Thueaksuban also established the Action Coalition for Thailand Party to contest those polls. More recently, Kon Chatikwanit has launched the Kla Party; its performance in a recent by-election in Bangkok suggests that, with its appeal to educated younger voters, the party may fare well in the capital in the next parliamentary election.
• Some members of parliament have left the Move Forward Party, the successor party to Future Forward, for the Bhumjaithai Party. Another Move Forward member of parliament has founded the Ruam Thai United, which may appeal to voters in Bangkok and provincial cities, in Dr Punchada’s view.
Dr Punchada said that recent developments among Thai political parties had left the Bhumjaithai Party as the real winner. It has drawn members of parliament from other parties—most notably the former Future Forward Party. Bhumjaithai party does not suffer from debilitating factionalism. It may be on track to do well in the next general election, perhaps with additional defectors from Phuea Thai and Phalang Pracharat.
Thailand will see a parliamentary no confidence debate in May. Dr Punchada noted that the Phalang Pracharat Party was working to ensure Prime Minister Prayut’s survival. In longer-term perspective, it seems that the Thai party system has returned to the pre-1997 era, in which parties are marked by factionalism, low numbers of members and insignificant branch networks. The 2017 Constitution has not reordered Thai politics. Nevertheless, the reintroduction of the two-ballot system, in which Thais will in the next election vote for constituency and party-list members of parliament separately, will not disadvantage Phalang Pracharat. The party ought still to be able to form a coalition with the support of small parties that succeed in capturing constituency seats.
Questions for the speakers from participants in the webinar concerned the paradox of parties’ being prohibited from roles in elections at the provincial, sub-district and municipal levels but being expected to hold provincial-level primaries to select candidates for parliament; whether the requirement that primaries be held would be in place for the next general election; whether Thammanat posed a threat to Prayut’s remaining premier; and whether the Thai Economy Party could emerge as a middle-sized party, like Bhumjaithai, after the next election. Participants also asked whether the absence of popular party leaders might be as important as the lack of financial resources in parties’ current weakness, and whether the former issue might not account for the latter; whether party-hopping would continue and whether Thailand would then face a period of weak parties; how Bhumjaithai would fare under revised electoral rules; whether a digital party had any chance of winning future Thai elections; and whether efforts to address the country’s splintered party-system had any chance of succeeding.