The lesson from the nationwide municipal elections this past Sunday, 20 December, is that Thailand’s patronage system is still very much intact.
Why wouldn’t it? The wave of the cultural revolution is only five months old. It’s still no match for 800 years of uninterrupted feudalistic patronage tradition.
The so-called “big houses” took the elections.
A “big house” is a godfather-esque family that runs a given province or a region, like feudal lords of the old time. They provide for the people in their province and region, and the people owe them allegiance.
They swept the municipal elections, whether those “big houses” representing Pheu Thai up north or the Democrats down south. As well as those “big houses” that represent the Prayut Chan-o-cha Regime, even though officially they didn’t come out as representatives of Palang Pracharat Party.
For example, the Khunpluem family that runs Chonburi Province and the eastern seaboard proved their region’s grip. Though, to be fair, unlike the usual “big houses” that run Thailand, the Khunpluem are capable administrators and have done good things for the region.
Former singer Nantida Kaewbuasai technically ran as an independent, but everyone knows she represents Palang Pracharat and the Prayut Regime. She won Samut Prakarn Province handily, not because she’s a legendary singer, even though that doesn’t hurt. It’s also not because she knows anything about politics and administration, but because she was married to Chonsawat Asavahame of the powerful Asavahame family. Though long divorced, her candidacy is pushed by the family with strong ties to the Prayut Regime.
In Payao Province, Akra Prompow, brother to powerful Palang Pracharat politician Thammanat Prompow, easily took the election.
Down south, the Democrat Party still proves its patronage in the region. Up north, it took both Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra to publicly support Pichai Lertpongadisorn in what many called a “desperate” attempt to maintain Pheu Thai’s power in Chiang Mai. But it worked. He won.
A look at the results of these municipal elections, and the conclusion is obvious: Thailand’s patronage feudalism is still strong.
But it won’t be in ten years.
A sweeping change in Thailand’s political landscape is coming.
Historically, Thailand’s politics isn’t about idealism but factionalism. One party is pretty much the same as the other in so far as the vision for Thailand. One may corrupt a little less, another maybe a little more capable, but in the overall scheme of a nation’s destiny, they are all the same.
Municipal elections are more about “what you can do for me now,” especially given the hardships of COVID-19 and the economy. You can’t fry democracy, put it on a plate, and eat it. It doesn’t pay your mortgage. But your regional patron can take care of you.
But national elections are different.
Since the 2019 general election, we have witnessed the rising of political idealism. There’s a clear distinction between conservative and liberalism, tradition and progress. This is why we see the decline of the Democrat Party, and Pheu Thai will eventually follow.
The two opposing ideologies are conservative traditionalism (a mixture of monarchism and militarism) VS liberal progressiveness (as much democracy as possible).
There are two clear representations of the two ideologies.
Want conservative traditionalism? Palang Pracharat is the way to go.
Want liberal progressiveness? Move Forward is your choice.
What then is the usefulness of the Democrats, Bhumjaitai, and Pheu Thai?
The Democrats’ fall for grace has already been witnessed, from the kingdom’s second most powerful political party to fifth place. The Bhumjaitai Party was fortunate in the 2019 general election, with the Thai Raksa Chart Party’s banning and the “misunderstanding” about which side Bhumjaitai would take in forming the government.
In future general elections, each could possibly win a couple of dozen MP seats at best. Why? Because neither represents Thailand’s two opposing ideologies. In the near future, Thais will no longer have the time or patience for factional politics. There are two competing ideologies, everything else is distraction.
Like in other countries, Thai politics will eventually be dominated by two parties. Without question, the side of conservative traditionalism is Palang Pracharat. The question is, who is on the other side?
Today, Pheu Thai is the main opposition party. In three years, it would likely still be. In six years? It won’t likely be. Why? Because Pheu Thai doesn’t represent the opposing ideology and doesn’t answer the new generation’s wants and needs.
Case in point, the Shinawatra family itself has proven to play both sides of the court. From nominating Princess Ubol Ratana as the prime minister candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party to viral photos of the family and the monarchy.
The optic isn’t good for the growing number of idealists who have no time for the usual Thai-style opportunistic politics. They want answers for their future, and like it or not, it’s Thanathorn and Co who sing that tune best.
And no one knows this better than the Pheu Thai party itself.
The real competition isn’t between Palang Pracharat and Pheu Thai. The real battle is between Pheu Thai and Move Forward, to see who can capture the hopes and dreams of Thailand’s idealist generation.
Those little high schoolers out there protesting today? They will become voters. If not in time for the next general election, then the following one. And they don’t muck about.
But are Thanathorn and Co the answer?
In the 2023 general election, Pheu Thai would still do well and will contest against Palang Pracharat for first place. Which, if the 250 senators are still around, Pheu Thai will lose anyway. Furthermore, in two years, Move Forward would still not recover from the gangsta’ “lawfare” campaign against it by the Prayut Regime. Its key figures would still be banned.
The number speaks for itself. In the 2019 general election, Palang Pracharat took first place in popular votes, with 8,413,413. Pheu Thai came second with 7,881,006. Future Forward came third with 6,254,726. Bear in mind that Future Forward also benefited from the banning of the Thai Raksa Chart Party.
If we analyze the numbers, this we do know: Over eight million Thai voters want conservative traditionalism. Over 14 million don’t. We don’t count the Democrat Party and Bhumjaitai Party; each had less than four million votes, and apparently, voters thought they wouldn’t join with General Prayut, voters were wrong.
Even if we throw in Suthep Thuagsuban’s Action Coalition for Thailand Party with Palang Pracharat, that’s just 416,324 votes.
But while Pheu Thai and Future Forward (now Move Forward) stand against conservative traditionalism, that doesn’t mean the two parties are the same. We do know what Pheu Thai is and isn’t, given that they have been in government before.
For Move Forward, we do not know because they were never the government. As such, there’s no evidence to judge by. If we take them at their words, it’s full-on democracy, whatever full-on democracy may mean.
But definitely, Thanathorn and Co represent the most liberal party.
The 2023 general election would likely be the last one dominated by patronage politics.
Not that patronage will disappear, however.
The entire Palang Pracharat Party is built on patronage, after all. But we will see the rise of ideological politics, where a new generation of voters will turn their back to Thailand’s godfathers and vote on their belief of what Thailand’s future should be.
Should it be the continuing dual rule of the monarchy and the military? Or whatever Thanathorn and Co have been promising?
But of course, by the 2027 general election, anything Thanathorn and Co related may either be banned or imprisoned, such is the feudalistic, gangsta’ nature of Thailand’s politics.