A protester holds up a sign referencing article 112, Thailand’s lèse majesté royal defamation law, during a demonstration in Bangkok on November 14, 2021, after a Thai court ruled that speeches by protest leaders calling for royal reforms amounted to a bid to overthrow the country’s monarchy. (Photo: Jack Taylor / AFP)

Long Reads

Thailand’s Main Opposition Party Hopes for a Landslide Election Victory: A Realistic Goal or Just a Dream?

Published

Phuea Thai (PT), Thailand’s main opposition party, is aiming at scoring a landslide victory in the country’s next general election, which is expected to take place in the third quarter of 2022. PT’s success may help allow the party’s chief patron, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to end his self-imposed exile overseas.

INTRODUCTION

Phuea Thai (PT), Thailand’s main opposition party, has begun gearing up for a crucial mission: scoring a “landslide” victory in the country’s next general election and thus becoming the indisputable leader and core of the next government.

Unfortunately, two recent developments have diverted public attention away from the rejuvenation of PT and disrupted its campaign. They may even force the party to return to the drawing board and to move forward more carefully in future.

First, the Constitutional Court ruled on 10 November that it was unconstitutional for three student protest leaders to have raised a ten-point demand for reform of the Thai monarchy at a rally at Thammasat University on 10 August 2020, and at various subsequent protest rallies. The justices of the Constitutional Court ruled 8-1 that the three protestors had abused their political rights and civil liberties in seeking “to overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as the Head of State”.

This ruling has made it more difficult for PT to support, directly or indirectly, any proposed reforms of the monarchy, especially abolishing or amending the lése majesté law. The party’s ally in the parliamentary opposition, the Move Forward Party (MFP), has been trying unsuccessfully to soften the law by removing the harsh compulsory jail term of 3 to 15 years per conviction.

A week later came the defeat of opposition parties’ effort to push through the first reading of the “people’s draft” constitutional amendment bill. On 17 November, the ruling coalition teamed up with senators to reject the draft bill by an overwhelming 473-206 margin.

This vote defeat was yet another setback for PT, which needs to attract the support of young voters.

Young voters are mostly in favour of scrapping the lèse majesté law, as well as removing all “vestiges of dictatorship” from the constitution. Many of them supported the “people’s bill”, which included abolishing the Senate and empowering the House of Representatives to play a more effective role in checking and balancing the executive branch of government. Not least, it would have empowered opposition members in the House of Representatives in that role.

WHY WOO YOUNG VOTERS?

On the basis of the 2020 population census, it can be extrapolated that by the end of 2021 there will be about 7.68 million of Generation Z voters in 18-26-year-old range. About 3.2 million Thais aged between 18 and 21 years old will be first-time voters if the next general election is held in 2022. In addition, there will also be another 8.39 million of Generation Y voters, in the 27–35-year-old range. Together, these Generation Y and Z Thais may amount up to 16.07 million votes.

In the country’s last general election, held on 24 March 2019, the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP) and PT received 8.44 million and 7.88 million votes, respectively. Unexpectedly, Future Forward, then barely two years old, came third with 6.33 million votes. Future Forward’s candidates were mostly young and energetic, and clearly capable of winning support from young voters.

A survey conducted by the NIDA Poll in the third quarter of 2021 found that, among respondents aged 18-25 years, 30.77 per cent supported the MFP, a successor to the dissolved Future Forward Party. Similarly, among respondents aged 26–35 years, 32.59 per cent supported the MFP. Support for PT among these two groups of younger voters was only 18.88 per cent and 16.61 per cent respectively.

… PT seems to realise that the party must zero in on Thailand’s 16 million young voters. Hence its recent initiatives in rebranding, in changing the party’s leadership, in offering support for LGBTQ+ people, and in attempting to address the lèse majesté law were largely aimed at attracting young and also progressive voters to the PT banner.

Among the older respondents, more prospective voters tended to support PT than the MFP. In the 36–45 age group, the figures were 20.43 per cent for PT and 13.54 per cent for the MFP; in the 46–59 age group, 26.07 and 11.06 per cent; and among voters aged 60 and above, 24.41 PT and only 6.3 per cent, respectively.

Another survey in October found that MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat had overtaken Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha in popularity. The 41-year-old former agro-business CEO received 32.94 per cent support, compared to General Prayut’s support level of 28.67 per cent. Nevertheless, PT was the most popular party in the survey; its support level of 32.94 per cent exceeded that of the MFP, which was at 25.21 per cent.

These numbers suggest, and PT seems to realise, that the party must zero in on Thailand’s 16 million young voters. Hence its recent initiatives in rebranding, in changing the party’s leadership, in offering support for LGBTQ+ people, and in attempting to address the lèse majesté law were largely aimed at attracting young and also progressive voters to the PT banner.

REBRANDING AND NEW LEADERSHIP

In early October, PT introduced a new, completely red, party logo. The blue colour in the previous logo was removed. The blue in Thailand’s tri-colour national flag represents the monarchy, whereas the red represents the nation, and the white, the religion.

But PT spokesperson Jiraporn Sinthupai, an MP for Roi-et Province, cautioned against reading too much into the change to the party’s logo. She explained that it was intended to make that logo stand out, as one completely different from the many other parties’ logos that use the tri-colours. She added that the red in the new logo represented the energy to drive towards election victory and democracy.

PT also soon adopted a new party slogan: “Tomorrow, the Phuea Thai Party: For the people’s better life.” This slogan is intended to build on the previous slogan: “Phuea Thai Party: Its heart is the people”.

Following these changes, a new PT leadership team was announced at the party’s general assembly in Khon Kaen on 28 October. Cholnan Sri-kaew, a 59-year-old medical doctor and MP for the northern province of Nan replaced 80-year-old Chiang Mai MP Sompong Amornvivat as party leader. Prasert Chantha-ruangthong, an MP for Nakhon Ratchasima, retained his post as party secretary-general, but many of the new 23-member executive committee were “new faces”. Several well-known PT veterans stepped aside or moved to join the PT’s strategy committee.  

SUDDEN U-TURN ON THE LÈSE MAJESTÉ LAW

Soon after PT’s new campaign took off, the party was shaken by political turbulence when it had to back down from a new attempt to lead in tackling Thailand’s lèse majesté law.

On 31 October, the PT’s chief legal advisor, Chaikasem Nitisiri, posted an announcement on the party’s website declaring that PT, the party with the largest number of MPs in the House, was ready to bring the people’s grievances concerning the lèse majesté law and the law on sedition—Sections 112 and 116 of the Criminal Code—up for consideration in the parliament. The purpose would be “scrutiny on the authorities in the justice system, from the police, the public prosecutors, the courts, and the corrections service to find out whether they have abided by the true objectives of the laws”.

Moreover, Chaikasem, who served as the justice minister in the 2011-2014 Yingluck Shinawatra administration, also pledged that PT would “amend the laws and unjust regulations for the release of prisoners of thought, and for the prevention of any increase in the [arrest] of prisoners of thought, which will constitute the beginning of recovery of trust in the justice system in Thailand.”

Thaksin apparently was taken aback by Chaikasem’s sudden initiative in tackling the lèse majesté law – which could be taken by its opponents as a sign that PT was switching to an anti-monarchy stance, perhaps related to its dropping the blue colour from the new party logo. He quickly put on record on his Facebook page his objection to any move to amend Section 112. Thaksin stated that the lèse majesté law had “never been a problem”; the real problem, in his opinion, came from the unscrupulous authorities in the justice system “who use this issue to create disunity in society”.

Immediately, as if taking a cue from Thaksin, PT leader Dr Cholnan clarified that the party would not take the lead in an effort to amend Section 112. Rather, it would merely volunteer to be “the medium” to use the legislative mechanism for the prevention of clashes of ideas outside of the parliament.

Thaksin’s crucial advice not only changed PT’s policy direction on the lèse majesté law, but also aroused one watchdog activist to file a complaint with the Election Commission to ask it to investigate Thaksin’s alleged interference in directing PT.

THAKSIN’S NEW TRUMP CARD?

The PT meeting in Khon Kaen brought a development more exciting than the installation of new leadership for the party. This was the introduction of Thaksin’s youngest daughter, Paethongtarn, as a new PT advisor on inclusiveness and innovation. In her debut speech, the 35-year-old real estate CEO and mother of an infant girl mentioned three crucial points: She understood the young generations’ problems and shared their aspirations for a better life, and she could help bridge generational gaps. She was very close to her father, Thaksin.  And her father ardently wished to return to Thailand.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, answering questions from reporters following her surprise appearance at the opposition Phuea Thai Party’s general meeting in the northeastern Khon Kaen province on October 28, 2021. (Photo: Paetongtarn “Ing” Shinawatra / Facebook)

Neither Paethongtarn nor Thaksin would confirm or deny that she was going to be one of PT’s three nominees for the premiership in Thailand’s next general election. Ex-PT leader Sompong could only confirm that Thaksin’s divorced wife, Pojamarn Damapong, would not be among the three nominees. Thaksin and Pojamarn legally divorced at the Thai consulate in Hong Kong in November 2008, after 32 years of marriage.

Thaksin has himself dismissed speculation about his former wife’s vying for the next premiership. During a video call to PT MPs on 12 October, he mentioned at least three reasons: Khunying Pojamarn’s age, 65; her dislike of politics; and her weakness as a public speaker.

More importantly, Thaksin casually disclosed that he had “a few plans” for PT to score a landslide victory in the next general election. He claimed that each of his plans would convince some PT MPs who had accepted bribes to defect to government parties to return the money and stay put in PT.  He emphasised that only with a resounding landslide victory could the PT become the indisputable head and core of the next government coalition.

Quite obviously, one of Thaksin’s plans is to put in place his youngest daughter to vie for the next premiership.

Unfortunately, Thaksin’s talk about his “plans” for PT has led to additional accusations of his alleged illegal “control, domination, or directing” of the party.

PT leader Dr Cholnan insisted that there was no issue, because Thaksin was talking to PT MPs at an informal dinner gathering, not a formal party meeting.  But Ruerng-gai Leekitwattana, a legal advisor to the PPP (and a defector from PT), on 26 October filed a case requesting the Election Commission to examine whether Thaksin and PT MPs violated the political party law during the video call in question.

Quite obviously, one of Thaksin’s plans is to put in place his youngest daughter to vie for the next premiership.

THAKSIN KNOWS BEST

Thaksin’s political track record is phenomenal. He gained the historic distinction of being the first elected Thai civilian to serve a full four-year term as premier, from 2001-2004. In the general election of February 2005, his party won a landslide victory with 377 seats, or a 75.4 per cent majority in the House, leaving in the dust the Democrat Party with only 96 seats.

Thaksin was ousted in a coup on 19 September 2006, while he was in New York City preparing to address the United Nations General Assembly.  He returned to Thailand on 28 February 2008 to face trial in a number of criminal cases. At first he seemed confident of acquittal. The prime minister at the time was Samak Sundaravej, the leader of the People Power Party, a successor to the Thai Rak Thai Party, which was dissolved on 30 May 2007.

Mysteriously, Thaksin and his wife received government permission to leave the country, purportedly to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, in early August 2008. Both failed to return to appear in court on 11 August in a case involving Thaksin’s authorisation for his wife to bid for a plot of government-owned land in Bangkok’s Ratchadaphisek area.  He was convicted in absentia for this conflict of interest in the execution of his duties and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. His wife, Pojamarn, was acquitted. The couple appeared in public in London on 21 October 2008, and Thaksin’s overseas exile began.

Even though Thaksin has been out of the country for well over a decade, he has maintained close ties with a large group of veteran politicians who belonged to the defunct Thai Rak Thai Party. After Samak’s forced resignation from the premiership on 30 September 2008, Thaksin managed to install his brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, as Samak’s successor. Somchai’s premiership ended when the People Power Party was dissolved on 2 December 2008.

Thaksin fought back by setting up PT with assistance from many of his experienced political allies. This time around, his achievement was even more spectacular. In just 59 days, he turned one of his younger sisters, Yingluck, into the first female prime minister of Thailand. PT’s simple and winning slogan was “Thaksin thinks, Yingluck acts!” The party won a majority of 265 House seats, beating once again the Democrat Party, which won only 159 seats.

Yingluck emerged as a fresh newcomer in Thai politics. She held no leadership post in PT, and therefore did not need to worry about party issues or legislative work. This pragmatic model may soon be replicated in the case of Thaksin’s youngest daughter, Paethongtarn.

NEW ELECTION SYSTEM

In the March 2019 general election, PT did win the largest number of House seats, 136, while the PPP came second with 116. However, the formula used to allocate the 150 party-list seats in relation to the parties’ shares of the popular vote and constituency seats, meant that PT did not qualify for any of the former seats.

The PPP received about 8.44 million votes, or about 23.74 per cent of the total. It won only 97 constituency seats, and was given 19 party-list House seats.

Recent constitutional amendments, backed by both PT and the PPP, to return to the use of separate ballots to indicate candidate and party preference, and to increase the number of constituency seats from 350 to 400 while reducing the number of party-list seats from 150 to 100, were promulgated in the Royal Gazette on 21 November.

Large and well-funded parties like PT and the PPP will benefit from the new election system. They have the capability and resources to field highly competitive candidates in all 400 constituencies and to mount active campaigns nationwide. On the other hand, small parties will face an uphill struggle to win any House seat – unlike in the 2019 general election, when 12 micro-parties each won a single seat.

With the return of the two-ballot voting system, Thaksin is confident that PT will win again. But he has emphasised that it must score a landslide victory, because—in the absence of support from any of the 250 senators, who are mostly conservative and anti-Thaksin—it might still lose in the voting for the premier in the parliament.

If PT manages to hold majority control of the House, no one will want to take the premiership without its consent. For the PT can easily force whoever is holding the premiership to resign or dissolve the House by defeating a major draft bill sponsored by the government.

POLITICAL BRINKMANSHIP IN PARLIAMENT

This is precisely the dilemma that General Prayut currently faces, because he does not belong to any party. Although he was nominated for the premiership by the PPP, he is now in a serious power struggle with the PPP’s secretary-general Captain Thammanat Prompao. Captain Thammanat tried but failed to oust General Prayut from the premiership in a no-confidence vote in early September.

General Prayut retaliated by dropping Captain Thammanat, who had served as deputy minister of agriculture, from the cabinet. All available indications show that the two have not settled their conflict, and Captain Thammanat remains quite capable of sabotaging any major government bill in the House.

Nevertheless, General Prayut has maintained that he will not dissolve the House – unless he is forced to do so. He remains intent on completing his four-year term as premier in the first quarter of 2023. And he has no intention just yet to join a political party, old or new, although he would welcome the PPP’s re-nomination to serve another term in the run-up to the next general election.

In recent weeks, a new party called “Thai Sangsan” or “Creative Thailand” has emerged as a potential “spare party” for General Prayut to join and lead into the next general election. The new party is also widely reported to be linked to the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior, Chatchai Promlerd, who retired from government service at the end of September.

CONCLUSION

Questions remain on whether Thaksin and the PT will be able to achieve a landslide victory in the next general election.  Thaksin’s active role in coming up with “plans” and “advice” could backfire and, even worse, lead to the downfall of PT. He may be able to use his youngest daughter as yet another political proxy. But how effective she can be is the question, especially when Thaksin cannot openly intervene in PT’s activities to assist her.

Most young voters care more about their lives and livelihoods. And pay little attention to Thaksin’s predicament in exile.

As things stand now, PT needs more new ideas to compete with the MFP for the votes of the young and the restless. Failing that, the party’s mission to score a landslide victory, as well as Thaksin’s wish to return to Thailand, will remain a sweet but empty dream.


This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/161 published on 8 December 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.