Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit

Thai prominent opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit pictured here during a campaign on 12 December 2020. (Photo: Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Facebook)

Thai Provincial Politics Remain Local

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The Progressive Movement stalled in provincial elections.

The 20 December elections for Thailand’s provincial administration organisations (PAOs) were billed as a “test of Thai democracy”. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit – a young Bangkok business tycoon and the former leader of the dissolved Future Forward Party – predicted a “landslide” victory for his Progressive Movement’s candidates for PAO chairman in 42 provinces.

Despite the junta that took power after the May 2014 coup suspending local elections and months of national-level political foment with the Progressive Movement in the front lines, little has changed at the provincial level. Thai provincial politics remain deeply rooted in the local and resistant to evolution.

The PAO chairs elected in 34 of the 76 provinces were incumbents or veteran politicians who had headed the same PAO in the past. About half of the victorious newcomers came from wealthy local families from influential cliques with ties to national political parties, while the other half of the newcomers were fielded by a few major political parties. None of the 42 Progressive Movement PAO chairman candidates won.

Local connections, local political machines, and local skills in vote canvassing down to the village level are needed to win PAO elections. These are the same sources of power and patronage – known as “ban yai” or “big houses” – that enable promising local figures to secure victories in national elections.

The Progressive Movement – set up by Thanathorn as a political movement and not a political party to continue to press for national reforms after the Future Forward Party was dissolved in February 2020 – campaigned on the idea that the transformation of Thai national politics started with local elections. 

Thanathorn tried in his PAO election campaign to build on his national campaign for reform of the armed forces, the national economy, the constitution, and the monarchy. These issues have inspired members of younger generations to join anti-government protest rallies in Bangkok and elsewhere in the recent months. 

However, many young eligible voters did not turn out to support Thanathorn’s PAO candidates on the day. In PAO elections there is no voting outside of one’s home province, no voting in advance, and no voting by mail. Many young voters who study or work outside their home provinces had returned home during the 10-13 December Constitution Day long weekend and might be due to return home again for New Year’s celebrations. In between these two holidays, many may have chosen not to return home to vote on 20 December.

A sudden outbreak of Covid-19 infections in Samut Sakhon the day before voting day have deterred many from travelling. Voter turnout dropped to just 62.25 per cent — much lower than the expected high of up to 80 per cent.

Thailand’s election law assists in shielding provincial politics from national influences and political parties. It prohibits the direct involvement of members of parliament, senators, political appointees, and government officials in supporting candidates in local elections. 

The outcome of the PAO elections was determined largely by locally based voters, many of whom have little interest in momentous national issues of the sort that Thanathorn sought to raise.

The two largest parties in the current ruling coalition at the national level, Phalang Pracharat and Bhumjai Thai, did not directly field candidates in the PAO elections. The third largest coalition party, the Democrats, sponsored PAO chairman candidates in only two provinces.

The Phuea Thai Party, Thailand’s largest party and the leader of the opposition, half-heartedly fielded PAO chairman candidates in only 25 of the 76 provinces. The Move Forward Party formed at the national level to inhering the 54 members of parliament from the dissolved Future Forward Party chose to step aside for Thanathorn’s Progressive Movement.

The outcome of the PAO elections was determined largely by locally based voters, many of whom have little interest in momentous national issues of the sort that Thanathorn sought to raise.

Despite the opposite of a landslide for the Progressive Movement, Thanathorn claimed there was a silver lining in its PAO election debacle.

The Progressive Movement’s 42 PAO chairman candidates received some 2.67 million votes, about 17 per cent of the total in the 42 provinces. In the 2019 general election, candidates for Thanathorn’s Future Forward Party in the same 42 provinces received 3.18 million votes, about 16.2 per cent of the total vote. Thanathorn concluded from these results that his dissolved party’s popularity remains strong and that its ideals continued to have appeal. 

The Progressive Movement’s candidates for seats on PAO councils captured 57 seats in 20 of the 42 provinces the movement contested. Thanathorn considers these elected provincial councilors as “vanguards” championing new and clean politics. But their total accounted for fewer than 5 per cent of the 1,302 seats on the PAO councils in these 42 provinces. 

Thanathorn and his Progressive Movement are facing an Election Commission probe into an allegation that they unlawfully operated like a political party during the PAO election campaign. Thanathorn’s silver lining is hard to spot.

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