In this webinar, Mr Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit shared lessons that he gained from local election campaigns. Drawing on these experiences, he discusses the underlying problems of the governing structure of the Thai state and offered his views on why and how the power relations between the central government and local administrations need to change.
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Tuesday, 7 September 2021 – Mr Thanathorn spoke about the Progressive Movement and its local-level political activities. Following the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February 2020, the Move Forward Party was established to focus on national politics in the Thai parliamentary system. In contrast, the Progressive Movement is focused on local politics, while campaigning on a democratic agenda for Thailand. The movement has already run candidates in provincial and municipal elections — held in December 2020 and March 2021, respectively. Those elections saw the movement’s candidates win 57 seats on provincial councils and more than 100 seats on municipal councils. Members of the Progressive Movement now govern 16 municipalities in seven provinces, with a total population of 160,000 people and with budgets totalling of 1.3 billion baht.
Mr Thanathorn noted that local politics is important to people’s quality of life and that local democracy is central to the development of national-level democracy. Work in local politics shows that a better Thailand is possible. One can work toward that goal at the local level, even while it is at present impossible to do so at the national level.
Many provinces, where a majority of Thai people live, face stagnation and a lack of jobs and growth. Their problems can be better addressed through local than through national politics. Local politics often arouses little interest, but it matters to people’s lives and to the delivery of public service. Many people lack a sense of its importance.
One of the foci of Progressive Movement administrations since their inauguration following this year’s municipal elections has been the provision of clean tap water to constituents. This is doable. Mr Thanathorn spoke in detail about the success of a Progressive Movement administration in bringing clean tap water to the people of a municipality that it governs in the Northeastern province of Roi Et.
He also discussed the work of municipalities governed by the Progressive Movement to introduce digital government, with its ability to address problems like traffic congestion, leakage from water systems, and the condition of sidewalks. Using an open-source platform to receive complaints, municipal governments under Progressive Movement leadership are able to be responsive to their constituents.
Additional municipal-level initiatives of Progressive Movement administrations include work to provide parks and other public spaces. In seven municipalities, those administrations are also overseeing the sorting and recycling of waste to general income to support community funeral funds. This kind of effort also motivates people to solve problems previously seen as unsolvable. Further, in Samut Prakan Province, municipal administrations under Progressive Movement leadership have introduced a digital-skills curriculum for students and restored a long-derelict waste-water treatment project.
Despite achievements like those that Mr Thanathorn described, local governments in Thailand still face limitations that prevent their achieving more. This is a structural problem, Mr Thanathorn said. The Ministry of the Interior in Bangkok appoints provincial governors and district officers. This structure creates a line of command through to sub-district chiefs and village leaders. Parallel to this line of command are elected provincial, municipal and sub-district administrations. There is tension between these two lines of government authority. They clash, and sometimes even duplicate each other’s efforts. But the budget approval process and the allocation of tax revenues make clear that greater power is in the hands of appointed officials than elected administrations. Starving municipalities of resources — leaving them with too little money to improve schools, roads or water treatment systems — is one more means by which the Thai state exerts control. Provincial governors and district officers have access to superior resources.
All of this is connected to the ideology of the Thai state, which has no belief in the people. Instability, coups and rapid turnover in both premiers and constitutions have characterized Thailand’s political history, and the country’s elite does not want to lose control. It fears democracy and the power of the people. As Mr Thanathorn is banned from party-political activity for a period of ten years, he has turned to local politics as a way to build democracy in Thailand.
Questions for Mr Thanathorn from participants in the webinar concerned whether people’s belief that things would never change explained their lack of interest in local politics in Thailand; whether the Progressive Movement worked with other parties, such as the Commoners Party, in local politics; and which considerations — including policy promises, party identification, candidates’ prominence, and local identity — had proved most important in Progressive Movement candidates’ efforts to connect with voters in local elections. Participants also asked whether the movement would contest coming sub-district-level elections, elections in Pattaya, and elections for the Bangkok governor and district councils in the capital; which options for increasing the budgets of local administration were most viable; and what the future of regionalization and decentralization in Thailand was. Finally, there were also questions about prospects for autonomy for Thailand’s Lower South; about whether the Progressive Movement had successfully engaged with officials of the Ministry of Interior in any local settings; about local political dynasties; and about the respective roles of students in Bangkok and provincial universities.