Faced with a disappointing second-place finish in Thailand’s 14 May election, Pheu Thai leaders must innovate and adapt for the sake of Thai democracy.
As early as January, in many parts of Thailand, the north in particular, Pheu Thai posters featuring the fresh-faced Paetongtarn Shinawatra were as ubiquitous as rice in the fields. It was, as many had predicted, a sea of red. As soon as Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha dissolved the House of Representatives in March, the consensus was that Pheu Thai and the daughter of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were the consensus frontrunners. Although Paetongtarn was a political neophyte, the party arguably banked on its glory days and a sense of nostalgia to win the hearts of Thai voters. It did not work as many expected. Pheu Thai had to contend with the emerging Move Forward Party, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, a charismatic Harvard and MIT-educated member of Parliament and businessman.
In the end, Move Forward exceeded all expectations, taking 151 seats to become the largest political party, including winning 32 out of 33 seats in Bangkok and a sizable portion of seats in the former Shinawatra stronghold, Chiang Mai. The reasons behind Pheu Thai’s stunning defeat are not difficult to decipher. There was a lack of innovation, particularly in social media, where it had succeeded in 2019. It failed to tap into broader social unrest, especially among a core of newly-engaged young voters, an area where Move Forward excelled.
The more important question is how Pheu Thai can turn the page and adapt. In Thailand’s turbulent, illiberal political system, extra-constitutional interventions by flawed and partisan institutions can undermine or eliminate political parties. This was evidenced recently by the dissolution of the Future Forward and Thai Raksa Chart parties by the Constitutional Court. In an austere environment and among structures that favor military-backed or conservative parties, it is crucial — whether a part of a majority coalition or not — that Thailand has strong political parties. For democracy to take root and thrive, it is essential that Pheu Thai evolves.
Political parties become weakened for a number of reasons. While they can help mobilise the electorate in support of wholesale change, in many cases globally, anger and frustration at the pace of change leads people to take to the streets independently of political parties. Mass mobilisation in the form of pro-democracy and monarchical reform protests failed to bring about substantive negotiations or enable tangible change. It was the combined work of Future Forward in 2019 and Move Forward this year that channelled voter frustrations into collective action. Strong political parties facilitate and enable change where ad-hoc mobilisation fails.
Oftentimes, however, parties will rot from within. In post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress captivated not only the attention of South Africans, but the world with his hope for a “better life for all”, but subsequent leaders tarnished the legacy of Mandela through blatant corruption. While twenty years ago, the promise of democratic change was made real by Thaksin Shinawatra’s seemingly unbeatable electoral coalition, the exiled former Prime Minister’s collection of scandals and human rights abuses in the South, combined with the age and lack of enthusiasm of his core supporters, warrants a change. A case can be made that Pheu Thai has departed from its original and central accomplishment of bringing a universal health care scheme to a middle-income country, and devolved into enriching and empowering the Shinawatra clan alone. Anxieties over his potential return amplifies this argument. If Pheu Thai is to truly evolve, it should consider moving past the Shinawatras.
Pheu Thai should reflect upon its legacy and restore its reputation as an innovator of sound public policy. Lessons from the May 14 election provide opportunities.
Years of populist policies have damaged Pheu Thai’s reputation. The party’s recent scheme to put 10,000 baht (US$390) into the hands of all Thais over the age of 16 was ridiculed by conservatives as wasteful, if not a blatant attempt at vote buying. Some policies were costly and poorly-devised. Yingluck Shinawatra’s plan to put tablet PCs into the hands of Thai school children eventually led to the purchase of cheap Chinese-made versions, with many going to waste or not being employed in an academic setting. Critical reforms, such as internet infrastructure, a revised curriculum, teacher capacity, and software that would enable Thai students to make marked improvements in key areas like English or Chinese language competency were neglected. Yet arguably, Yingluck’s rice pledging scheme was her worst policy failure.
Pheu Thai should reflect upon its legacy and restore its reputation as an innovator of sound public policy. Lessons from the May 14 election provide opportunities. For example, greater transparency in candidate selection is needed in all parties to ensure that more female candidates are represented both in the party and in the Parliament. Pheu Thai could lead that effort. Of all of the 4,781 constituency candidates in the May election, just 878 were women. Out of the 63 prime ministerial candidates, just 9 or 14 per cent were women. There is an opportunity for Pheu Thai to spotlight more than just Yingluck or Paetongtarn as role models for women’s political empowerment. Instead, it was Move Forward which captured the attention of young Thai women, like Rukchanok “Ice” Srinork or Chonticha “Kate” Jangrew. Both women are still in their twenties. They transitioned from activists to political candidates and made international headlines in the process. Pheu Thai was the party with the kingdom’s first female Prime Minister. It can become a greater champion of women, not only in politics, but in areas of education, science and technology, and public health.
Most importantly, Pheu Thai needs to reclaim its political identity as a champion for democracy and build a reputation for accountability, transparency, and good governance. As it claims a number of line ministries as a part of a coalition government, it should work to make substantive reforms. While a coalition means cooperative government, Pheu Thai must find a way to distinguish itself from Move Forward as well. Pita Limjaroenrat is the current face of democratic reform in Thailand, but as attention turns from election victory to actual governance, obstacles to grand ideas of sweeping reform are ahead. As the public will soon learn, reform happens at a much slower pace than campaign speeches might suggest. Observers may recall attempts to make amendments to the 2017 Constitution. It did not go well.
Support for Move Forward will inevitably erode. This is where a reformed, refocused and innovative Pheu Thai can provide a reasonable alternative.
Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University, based in Osaka Prefecture, Japan.