In this webinar, Mr Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (Leader of the Thai Progressive Movement) and Dr Prajak Kongkirati (Associate Professor, Thammasat University) discussed the different political scenarios that will follow after the 2023 Thailand election.
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Friday, 31 March 2023 – This webinar explored the outlook of Thailand’s 2023 general election, scheduled for 14 May. It addressed the legacies of the May 2014 coup d’état, sheds light on whether Thailand’s conservative establishment can hold on to power, and whether unmet grievances, particularly among the youth, will translate into meaningful change. The speakers discussed various election and post-election scenarios and their potential implications for Thailand. The webinar attracted 154 attendees. Key points from the discussion are summarised below:
- Thailand must undertake difficult reforms to move the country towards a more equal and democratic society. These reforms include democratisation, decentralisation, demonopolisation and demilitarisation.
- Democratisation is necessary to keep the military out of national politics and to amend the constitution so that military strongmen cannot influence parliamentary democracy. Thailand’s economy is based on monopolies and oligarchs which create greater wealth inequality between the rich and the poor. Thus, demonopolisation reform is also essential for the future of Thailand.
- The bottleneck for development in Thailand is the bureaucracy which is centralised in Bangkok. Providing more autonomy to local and provincial governments is necessary for further decentralisation reform, which will promote democratic development at the local level.
- Demilitarisation requires ending the military’s influence not only in the political arena but also in economic activities. Military generals have been involved in too many businesses in Thailand, which gives them an incentive to stay in politics. Laws need to be amended so that the armed forces can be brought under civilian control. Military conscription should be terminated, and only volunteers should join the armed forces.
- These reforms are important and must be pursued. Otherwise, there will be endless coup d’état and more devastating wealth inequality between the rich and the poor.
- The 2023 general election may result in one of three scenarios: “Chaos,” “Muddling Through,” and “Shining Star”. In the first scenario, “Chaos,” Thai politics will become chaotic as the name suggests. The 250 senators will join the 500 elected MPs in selecting a prime minister backed by the military against the people’s will, and a military general (either General Prawit Wongsuwan, leader of Palang Pracharath, or incumbent Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, from the United Thai Nation) will return to power. Another version of “Chaos” would occur if the opposition parties manage to form a government, but some of these parties, including chief opposition Pheu Thai Party are dissolved by the Constitutional Court for allegedly violating election law or political party law. These two potential cases of “Chaos” will bring instability and resistance from the people and may even lead to another military coup.
- In the “Muddling Through” scenario, there will be too many compromises in various areas. There will not be any meaningful reform after the election. Neither the people’s camp nor the establishment camp will be able to pursue their agendas.
- In the scenario of “Shining Star”, opposition parties can form the government and manage to push for meaningful reforms. This scenario will lead Thailand back on a democratic path. However, the government still needs to have a political will to pursue progressive ideas and confront the establishment. If the opposition parties can win at least 275 seats in the lower house, most of the senators in the upper house will not vote against the will of the people.
- It usually takes quite a while for the new government to be formed after the election date. Therefore, it can be expected that the new government will effectively presume the duties only in August. The electoral rules have been changed similar to a mixed system used in the 1997 general election. Voters will have to choose one district MP and vote for one party ( for a share of the 100 party-list House seats). This system gives advantages to large parties such as Pheu Thai.
- The 250 senators appointed during the military regime four years ago still have the power to select a new prime minister in a joint session involving both upper and lower houses. The involvement of the unelected senators makes the Thai general election more complicated. Prime Minister candidates do not have to be an elected MP and 376 votes out of 750 are needed to win the premiership.
- Key political parties in the 2023 election are Pheu Thai, Palang Pracharath (PPRP), United Thai Nation Party (UTNP), Bhumjaithai, Democrat and Move Forward (MFP). The Thai political landscape is no longer a two-party system witnessed during 2001 – 2014. In addition, parties within the ruling coalition and the opposition coalitions are not united. Thailand in 2023 has a multi-party system with a wide spectrum of political ideologies from ultra-conservative to progressive.
- There are other actors who can influence the outcome of the general election, such as the monarchy, the Army, the Constitutional Court and the Election Commission. The Constitutional Court specifically has enormous power since it can dissolve political parties and change the electoral equation.
- The upcoming general election will have two military-backed political parties. General Prayuth is backed by the United Thai Nation Party and has support from royalists, conservatives and the establishment. General Prawit of the PPRP has vast political and business networks.
- General Prawit has rebranded himself as a reconciliation candidate since he expects Pheu Thai party to win the largest number of House seats. Thus, he would like to position himself as a candidate willing to work with Pheu Thai in the new coalition government. At the same time, General Prawit is prepared to work with the conservative camp as well.
- General Prayut of the UTNP is both an asset and a liability in one person. He is an asset because he is supported by the ultra-royalist and conservative camp. On the other hand, General Prayut is a liability since he is not constitutionally permitted to stay in power beyond mid-2025 even if he wins the premiership after the upcoming general election.
- Pheu Thai is the largest party in Thailand, and it is aiming at a “landslide victory” by winning more than 250 House seats in order to control the majority in the House of Representatives. Its policy package includes populist agendas such as increasing minimum wages, and reducing energy costs. Even the PPRP and the UTNP are copying these populist policy sets.
- Bhumjaithai is currently the second-largest party in the ruling coalition and will play the role of the deal-maker. Bhumjaithai’s strength is its resources and will compete fiercely with Pheu Thai in the Northeast. Bhumjaithai is open to working with Pheu Thai, the PPRP and the UTNP. However, Bhumjaithai is facing criticism for its support of marijuana legalisation.
- Move Forward Party (MFP) runs on a progressive platform and will not work with either General Prayut or General Prawit. The MFP is popular among urban and young voters.
- However, the party faces significant disadvantages with the new electoral system. In the 2019 general election, Future Forward, the predecessor party of the MFP, won 87 seats which secured the third largest number of seats, even though few observers had expected Future Forward to be so successful and popular around the country. Future Forward was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February 2020 for violating political party law (accepting illegal loans from its party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The MFP was then set up to succeed Future Forward. )
- The MFP has more time to prepare for the election in 2023 compared with Future Forward in 2019. Its candidates also have better qualifications and ample time to connect with their constituents.
- Democrat Party is facing an identity crisis and it has already lost strong supporters of the party to other parties.
- There are risk factors for the election such as the possibility of a rigged election, manipulation of electoral results, Thaksin’s return to Thailand, monarchy’s involvement and favours, and dissolution of some parties by the courts. These factors can lead to conflicts and street protests.
- Even though the winning party can be predictable, there is high uncertainty surrounding how the government can be formed since it depends on the winning margin. Pheu Thai might have the majority in the lower house but without the support from the senators.
- General Prayut will have the senators’ support but will not win the election.
- Considering the aforementioned conditions, three scenarios can be put forth. The first scenario is where Pheu Thai will form a coalition government with other minor parties with or without Move Forward Party. The second scenario is a cross-over coalition between Pheu Thai and the PPRP. The third scenario will be a minority government led by General Prayut.
- No matter what the outcome is, Thailand will have a difficult time transitioning back to democracy and Thailand will likely face political turmoil after the election.
Questions posed to the speakers by the audience concerned the supporter base for Move Forward Party, Move Forward Party’s provincial candidate recruitment, the future of progressive politics in Thailand, wealth disparity between Bangkok and other remote areas, international response to the upcoming general election, Thaksin factor for Pheu Thai, the role of the monarchy in the electoral politics, specifics on General Prawit and General Prayut, feasibility of more constitutional amendments, the future of the 250 senators, similarities and differences between Move Forward and Pheu Thai, Move Forward’s plan to move Thailand beyond middle-income trap, specific questions on Thailand’s commitment to democracy, and the role of first-time voters in the election.