Merge or Die: How Chart Pattana Kla Reflects a Sea Change in Party Dynamics
The merger between the Kla and Chart Pattana parties is a logical outcome of Thailand’s new electoral rules, which will benefit bigger entities at the expense of smaller, party-list driven ones. The new rules mean that more of these mergers should be expected.
In early September, Kla Party leader and former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij declared that he will join the Chart Pattana Party, committing to an informal merger between the two parties. Despite Kla’s losing streak consisting of three by-elections and the Bangkok gubernatorial election, Korn was welcomed with open arms by Chart Pattana Party chairman Suwat Liptapanlop, who wasted little time in renaming the party “Chart Pattana Kla.” The combined entity currently has two party-list MPs and two constituency MPs, all drawn from Chart Pattana.
It is futile to search for meaning in the party’s name, which gives the impression that the new party was stitched together in a last-ditch effort. But perhaps there is something to the ordering – Chart Pattana comes first, and Kla comes second.
Chart Pattana, on the one hand, was a long-established party originally led by former prime minister General Chatichai Choonhavan with a stronghold in Nakhon Ratchasima. Underscoring the shifting sands of Thai political parties, Chart Pattana changed its name five times previously – each time to commemorate the coming and going of leaders or factions in response to changing political circumstances. This time was no different. On 16 October the party held a general assembly to elect a new party executive committee. Korn became Chart Pattana Kla’s party leader, replacing Suwat’s younger brother, Tewan Liptapanlop, who now assumes the role of party secretary-general. Kla’s former secretary-general Attawit Suwanpakdee and former chief strategist Korbsak Sabhavasu became Chart Pattana Kla’s deputy party leader and chief strategist, respectively. The new party thus upholds its original legacy as a makeshift vehicle for political elites and factions to reach their destination no matter how bumpy the road or insalubrious the weather conditions.
On the other hand, Kla was founded in 2020 to assure Korn a political foothold after he lost in a bid for the Democrat Party’s leadership and resigned from the party. The electoral system at the time seemed to favour Kla’s attempt to appeal to a broader electorate with its policy-oriented and technocratic image. Since then the electoral system was re-engineered in ways that make it unlikely for the party’s positioning to bear fruit.
Pending a Constitutional Court ruling, the new electoral system will adopt “100” as the divisor in a formula used for calculating the number of party-list seats allocated to political parties. This outcome will require parties to win substantially more votes — compared to the approximately 71,000 votes needed under the previous system — to gain one party-list seat. Consequently, for smaller parties like Kla, solely competing for party-list votes will no longer be viable. That is, they will have to compete for both party-list and constituency seats.
At stake also is the prospect of rising to premiership as a leader of a small but strategically situated party. According to the Constitution, the prime minister is nominated by parties that have at least 25 MPs. This requirement now appears more stringent, because the new electoral rules will make it harder for parties like Kla to capture enough seats to nominate prime ministerial candidates.
Chart Pattana Kla will probably not be the last merger. It serves as an early indication that other parties that were recently forged in the same vein, such as Thai Sang Thai Party and Sang Anakhot Thai Party, will likely follow suit.
From this standpoint, Chart Pattana Kla is not a marriage of convenience but, rather, a marriage of necessity. With the merger, a life raft consisting of around 80 former Kla members will tide through the transition to the new electoral system and, potentially, secure Korn the chance to pursue his prime ministerial ambitions. To meet these goals, the party will recalibrate its aims and reallocate its resources to where the locus of competition has shifted or, perhaps, where it has always been – securing the support of certain constituency MP candidates whose influence and networks, legitimate or not, can guarantee seats even in a winner-takes-all system. It will make Kla (“courage”) secondary to Chart Pattana’s style of pragmatism and adaptability, becoming an organisation that thrives on strategic accommodation.
For Chart Pattana Kla, pervasive party switching and defection by individual MPs and factions is welcome, since the party may be planning to attract and secure MPs from other parties. Since constituency MPs can now defect from their parties and hop to another without penalty, the market of MPs is currently open and will remain open until the end of this year or next February at the latest. MP candidates must be affiliated with a party at least 90 days before election day (or 30 days in the event of a House dissolution).
A party like Chart Pattana Kla, centrist and pragmatic to the core, is well-poised to recruit politicians regardless of ideological orientation. Its targets may include MPs affiliated with the Democrat Party or the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, whose interests are no longer aligned with those of their parties due to internal struggle, uncertainty over prime ministerial candidates, or declining party popularity.
Chart Pattana Kla will probably not be the last merger. It serves as an early indication that other parties that were recently forged in the same vein, such as Thai Sang Thai Party and Sang Anakhot Thai Party, will likely follow suit. However, it will not be easy for these mergers to compete with larger and better financed parties such as Phuea Thai Party and Bhumjaithai Party at recruiting and retaining MP candidates. Even Palang Pracharath’s offshoot, the Thai Economic Party, is now rumored to be making plans to join Phuea Thai, after Captain Thammanat Prompao resigned as party leader.
Failure to stand independently as a party could mean being forced out of politics or becoming subsumed into larger parties under less-than-desirable terms. In 2005, an earlier incarnation of Chart Pattana was absorbed into the Thai Rak Thai Party; thereafter it has not been able to regain its former glory. Yet, this outcome may be what is necessary for Thailand to rid itself of weakly institutionalised and ephemeral parties that stand for nothing other than getting elected. In short, Thailand’s new electoral system means one thing: in an inversion of a long-standing adage, the race does go to the swift, and battle to the strong.
Napon Jatusripitak is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.