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The Battle For Thailand Part 1
A potential generational realignment election in Southeast Asia
Doesn’t this look like a fun cast of characters? This is fun right guys? right? Please be fun. Sourced From The Bangkok Post.
What’s Going On?
On Sunday May 14th 2023(This Sunday!) Thailand will vote in a potentially era defining election. The election incorporates a dizzying array of political parties and personalities, all with varying ambitions and positions on the political spectrum. It serves as the ending to a transitory era of Thai politics which started around 2014 with the coup against the Yingluck Shinawatra government.
There’s a lot to cover before we even get to the actual candidates and how the polling could pan out. This will be a two part piece, this covers how exactly we got to this election and the rules of the election. Tomorrow we’ll cover the main contenders and just how the polling might shake out.
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Thailand is a hugely important country. It is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia(slightly larger than Nigeria’s economy with just seventy million people) behind Indonesia’s. Its justly famous for its world defining tourism industry and elite cuisine, and is well respected for its technocratic elite and monetary management since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which has made the Thai Baht one of the world’s most stable currencies.
One of Southeast Asia’s capitals of commerce, Bangkok.
Thailand is also remarkable in many ways for its hybrid government status. It has a reigning monarch that along with the military serves as a networked monarchical state that ultimately is the key powerbroker within Thai politics. This establishment interfaces with an often vibrant and chaotic political scene that orients around Thailand’s National Assembly, which through popular votes can at times bring in political administrations that conflict with the wishes and policy inclinations of Thailand’s traditional elite.
This pulling of the ropes between the networked monarchy/military and a bloc of forces I’ll call the Democrats, has been the central theme of Thai politics since the Siamese Revolution of 1932, which formally ended the absolute monarchy era in Thailand, and its tensions are quite open and bare in this election as well.
Thailand has had since 1932, 13 successful coups, plenty of heated protest movements, democratic governments that have risen and fallen, and tons of drama that have all come along with it. Southeast Asia as a whole is a fascinating political landscape, and Thai Politics is a part of that wonderful and glorious tapestry.
How Did We Get Here?
Thailand has had quite a dramatic political landscape the past twenty years. The story starts in the early 2000s where after yet another round of constitutional reforms Thailand had its most open election yet in 2001.
Thaksin Shinawatra fundamentally changed the Thai political game in the early to Mid 2000s.
A Thai telecoms Billionaire by the name of Thaksin Shinawatra saw the path for a new kind of Thai politics, one that focused on the grievances and aspirations of Northern Thailand, especially its long neglected Isaan Countryside in the Northeast. With a coalition largely compromised of poor farming communities in the north and their diaspora further afield in Bangkok and Central Thailand he swept into office and generationally realigned Thai politics.
Data from the 2001 Thai election, look at how Thaksin dominated the North and also scored impressively in the Bangkok metro area as well.
Thaksin was deeply controversial but he fundamentally did set Thailand on some impressive economic growth during his tenure. From all statistics associated with his government, extreme poverty fell heavily in the North and the country as a whole as a result of his policies such as increased welfare measures for the poor, expansion of credit and lending program to farmers, and elevated rates of investment in infrastructure. He was known as an economic mastermind that leveraged Thailand onto some of its highest growth rates ever.
By 2005, riding a wave of high public sentiments, especially over Thailand’s immense economic performance, he followed up his 2001 victory with a completely dominating victory in the 2005 elections.
This is what we call a landslide. Politicians dream about results like this.
Sadly, this was near the end of the good times for Thaksin. His entire premiership had been dogged with constant corruption allegations, as well as the fact that a premiership that was in part about a decentralization of the economy from Bangkok to other regions wasn’t exactly popular to long standing Bangkok elites. Thaksin to a large segment of the Bangkok elite class was a crony fatcat, getting ever richer in Bangkok while gaining the adulation of masses of the Thai public. A man for who those who loved him really LOVED him, and a man for those who hated him, really HATED him.
In 2006, while he was abroad on a trip to New York City, the Military seized advantage and Thaksin Shinawatra’s tenure was no more. Exiled to largely live abroad, primarily in UAE over the years, he still casts a massive specter over Thai politics as a whole.
However that did not mark the end of the Thaksin story as a few years after the coup elections were held in 2011, where Thaskin Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra stormed to victory, forming a majority government off the same coalition that had gotten his brother into power just a decade ago.
The feeling when you’re so popular even your siblings ride into office off your name. Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s First Female Prime Minister.
Her premiership proved to not be an easy ride, the traditional establishment was still overall at unease with the popularity of the Shinawatra clan, and things did not get any easier when in late 2013 Yingluck’s government proposed a massive amnesty bill that would have cleared investigations/criminal charges for anyone involved in Thailand’s political tumult from 2004 to 2013.
For a sect of Bangkok’s middle class this was a step too far and a movement oriented around opposing the bill, called the yellow shirt movement, emerged to oppose this bill that could have cleared the way for the return to Thailand of Thaksin Shinawatra. After a few months of crisis and the dissolution of her government for elections, the chaos proved to be much for the Military and another coup came against yet another member of the Shinawatra clan. Just like her brother Thaksin, Yingluck soon fled the country to avoid potential criminal charges.
Since 2014 Thailand has largely been a military guided country, General Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power after the 2014 coup and largely has stayed in power since, even after a new constitution was written in 2017 and controversial elections were held in 2019. He has been there much to the annoyance of pro democrats, and much to the joy of Thai conservatives who see him as a steady ship in the harbor.
General Prayuth in the earliest days of his tenure.
In 2020/2021 that steady ship in the harbor seemed a bit unnervy though, as massive protests gripped Thailand, led by a new generation that defied the norms in Thailand around royal regard. In early 2020 on college campuses throughout Thailand, but especially in Bangkok, shouts emerged for the abolition of the Thai Senate(more on this later), the dissolution of the current government, and eventually calls for the reform of laws around criticism of the monarchy(to relax such laws).
The protests started at the literal turn of the year after the hugely popular among the youth political party known as the Future Forward Party was shut down via a court order. To the government’s reliefs the COVID lockdown stalled their motion when lockdowns were declared in Thailand.
But from summer 2020 until the fall Bangkok was a wave of protests and a den of outrage. The movements shook the establishment to a degree unlike prior protest movements before it due to the fact that for the first time ever ordinary protestors, many of them young of course, were calling for impactful reforms of the monarchy.
2020 was a year of infamy and public protests worldwide. From America to Nigeria to Thailand.
For the military and the monarchy as a whole, this protest movement was code red, and led towards efforts to neutralize the movement. A state of emergency was declared in Bangkok in October 2020 due to efforts to protest a royal motorcade, which would have been unthinkable decades prior ever happening in Bangkok. Such was the regard for King Rama The Ninth, who towered above the political realm and was largely not questioned over the decades. King Rama The Tenth, his son and now the reigning monarch, has been unable to inspire the same degree of affection so far at present.
King Rama The Tenth
The protest movements ultimately fizzled out over the course of 2021 as the Thai National Assembly ignored responding to the movement, protestors felt increasingly uncomfortable at going out in the streets, and hundreds of dissidents were arrested and imprisoned.
Regardless how one feels about these events though, it ultimately set up this election in May 2023 to always be a firecracker. Thailand currently has three loosely affiliated coalitions vying for power. The old guard military and the royal establishment, their traditional modern opposition in the Shinawatra clan, and now as well a highly fervent youth movement that we can say is highly desirous of social reform and pro democratic measures, while also yearning for more equitable economic growth.
How Do Elections In Thailand Work?
You may be curious now of how exactly elections in Thailand work. This year’s election largely revolves around the National Assembly, Thailand’s parliament. Thailand’s National Assembly is made up of two houses, the Thai Senate and the House Of Representatives. The upper house, The Thai Senate, is composed of 250 seats, and they have all been appointed by the Military establishment. None of these seats are up for a vote, however they will be able to cast a vote on who becomes the Prime Minister so they are vitally important. One of the core demands of the 2020 protests were to suspend the senate, but given as you can see the possibility that the senate can act as a potential veto on the public’s demands via elections, you can see why it was a hard no from the establishment to suspend it.
The lower house of the Thai National Assembly, is the House Of Representatives, it is made up of 500 seats in total. There are about 400 constituent seats that will be determined on a first past the post basis, so the winner taking the seat for their party for that specific district. Thai voters will also besides casting the vote for their district representative cast the vote for their most favored party, so 100 of the 500 seats will come via the party list vote. These will be allocated on a percentage basis based on the percentage the party gets nationally in the party list vote.
Together the 500 elected representatives and the 250 appointed senators will cast the vote for who should be Prime Minister. This is where things get very interesting. The 250 senators largely have loyalties to the military establishment, meaning that if the opposition seeks a return to power to displace the opposition they likely need 376+ seats in the national assembly to comfortably claim power due to the Senate’s votes. They need not only a majority then to rule but effectively a super majority.
In terms of who exactly is voting, there are 52 million voters, and the majority of the voters are concentrated among millennials and Gen Xers. Thailand is an aging country so its not going to be producing a growth of voters from here on out unless demographic trends reverse.
Tomorrow we’ll dive into what exactly could unfold with the parties at stake, their leading contenders, and my final predictions.