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"The Election Rallies to Come in Thailand" by Michael J. Montesano

2019/12, 30 January 2019

January 23 brought publication of the long-awaited royal decree making it possible for Thailand’s Election Commission to set a date for parliamentary polls. The following day, wasting no time in launching their campaign, supporters of the Democrat Party appeared in a market in the major Southern Thai centre of Hat Yai to distribute leaflets to traders and shoppers. One trader welcomed them by shouting loudly, “Now that there will be an election, you come to see us. Once we have voted, you disappear completely!” He was not alone among those present in feeling such disdain for the Democrats.

Marc Askew’s classic study of the Democrat Party in its heartland of Upper Southern Thailand during the 2001-2006 premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra focused on the party’s electoral success both in Hat Yai and in the surrounding province of Songkhla. It may then seem surprising to learn of open expressions of violent opposition to the party there today. But low prices for natural rubber and oil palm have left many in Upper Southern Thailand feeling impatient with the traditional order. Those prices have, even after nearly five years of military rule in Bangkok, driven some voters to dwell more on economic issues than on the political ideals that the Democrats have long proclaimed as their own. Partly as a result of this change in outlook, and even in that part of the country, former Prime Minister Thaksin no longer serves as the useful bogey-man that he did just a few years ago. Further, Askew’s findings revealed the presence of opposition, whether principled or opportunistic, to the Democrat Party in its Southern heartland even during the Thaksin era.  Might the coming 2019 polls then see the party on the ropes there?

Not so fast. Passing out leaflets in a market-place is one thing, but skilled oratory deployed at mass rallies has in the past been the key to Democrat success in the Upper South. Askew views these rallies as exercises in affirming and reinforcing political identity. The leading Red Shirt figure in Songkhla’s neighbouring province of Trang, long a firm opponent of the Democrats, shares this stress on the importance of the party’s rallies as political phenomena. Other parties in Trang may draw 5000 or 10,000 people to their events. But the Democrats can ferry in supporters not only from sub-districts across the province by also from nearby provinces. The resulting crowds of up to 80,000 people serve, the Red Shirt notes with awe, to fire up the party’s speakers and thus to inspire dazzlingly effective speeches. And in the 2019 campaign cycle the Democrats have not yet begun to hold these rallies in earnest.

Other parties, courting voters in other regions of the country, and the military government in Bangkok itself also recognize the importance of political rallies, perhaps more than ever before. Even ten days before the publication of the royal decree on elections, the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party held a major campaign-rally-style meeting in the Northern province of Chiang Rai to unveil its candidates for the province’s seven seats in parliament. And, perversely, the provincial administrative organization in neighbouring Phayao Province acknowledged the importance of such rallies by blocking the Phuea Thai Party’s attempt to hold one in its stadium that same week. In various provinces of the Northeast, too, the period before the publication of the decree saw the open appearance of Red Shirt protestors at political rallies.

The Red Shirt presence at rallies in the Northeast underlines the clear importance of party-political rallies in Thailand as venues for the assertion and reinforcement of political identity, and not just among voters in Upper Southern Thailand. The Democrats, Phalang Pracharat, Phuea Thai and their innumerable competitors for votes face onerous regulations governing campaigning for Thailand’s March 24 polls. But those parties’ success in activating collective social, regional, economic and political identities by means of large campaign rallies as the polls draw nearer and nearer merits close attention. For, as manifestations of identities, the election rallies to come in Thailand will have great bearing not only on popular, official and perhaps palace reaction to the results of the polls but also on the process of forming a government that will follow the release of those results.

Dr Michael Montesano is Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.