By Dan Waites
Just three months ago, the Pheu Thai Party appeared rudderless, divided and incapable of mounting an electoral challenge against Thailand’s Democrat Party-led ruling coalition. Judicial rulings banning the executives of its former incarnations from politics had left Thaksin Shinawatra’s current political vehicle crammed with second-rate politicians. Certainly, there was no candidate in its ranks who looked capable of taking on the polished – albeit damaged – Abhisit Vejjajiva in the forthcoming race to lead Thailand. In short, the party looked a mess.
And yet here we are. Pheu Thai has defied most expectations to win a provisional 265 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives. The Democrat Party was trounced, winning just 159 seats, and Abhisit has resigned as party leader. Now, Yingluck Shinawatra is set to become Thailand’s 28th prime minister and the first woman to take on the job. True, the Election Commission is yet to endorse Yingluck as a member of Parliament, a fact that has led some observers to suggest a “judicial coup” might be in the offing. But assuming the EC confirms her MP status on Tuesday as expected, a political dynasty has arrived. How did we get here?
Since the July 3 election, we’ve seen an avalanche of commentary contrasting the campaigns of the two largest parties. The Democrats’ lacklustre campaign – which lurched desperately into negative territory in the final week before the polls – was clearly bettered by the slicker political machine of their victorious opponents. (This unfair but amusing picture contains a kernel of truth, h/t to Rajprasong News for finding it). Yingluck’s every move may have been carefully choreographed by the brains behind Pheu Thai, but as The Economist put it:
During the campaign, she never put a foot wrong. Merely being a woman made her an instant novelty. Her sunny and optimistic disposition was expertly marketed by her minders, then sold to a Thai public ready for a break from the male-dominated and violent politics of the last few years.
In contrast to his politically inexperienced adversary, Abhisit never looked comfortable mingling with the masses – and when he did, he was heckled by angry red shirts in what may or may not have been an orchestrated campaign. The Democrats seemed to pin their hopes on a televised debate between the two leading candidates. Oxford-educated Abhisit would surely have run rings around his political novice opponent. So Pheu Thai wisely stuck two fingers up at the debate. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ drab billboards – which weren’t replaced with anything effective until a week before the election – can’t have done the party any favours. Pheu Thai’s portraits of Yingluck, at once striking and understated, cleverly downplayed her good looks in favour of gravitas (see Chris Baker’s analysis here).
But let’s not be under any illusions. While Yingluck’s own qualities played their part, most votes for Pheu Thai were votes for Thaksin (A few days before the election, I asked a taxi driver from Roi Et who he planned to vote for. He paused, grinning almost guiltily before answering: “I’m voting for Thaksin!”) The slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai does” speaks for itself.
And what of the issues? Did the result, as some have claimed, represent a repudiation of the past five years of military-judicial meddling in Thai democracy? Did some voters desert the Democrat Party out of disgust for the deaths of some 90 people in last year’s red-shirt protests? Almost certainly. Speaking to Bloomberg, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, put it like this: “It’s not as much a vote for Thaksin as a vote against the manipulation, coercion and suppression that we’ve seen since 2006.”
Some have suggested that the red-shirt movement deserves partial credit for Pheu Thai’s victory. Key red-shirt leaders like Jatuporn Prompan, Natthawut Saikua and Weng Tojirakarn were among several given plum positions on the party’s party list. The movement vocally supported Pheu Thai, used its network to deliver votes for the party and may well have helped discredit the Abhisit government in the eyes of many voters. But judging the net effect of the red shirts’ activities on the election result is tricky. The Democrats spent the final week of the campaign warning Thais against voting for the people who “burned the country”. Some voters may have been swayed.
But economic factors also played their part. The Thai economy may have grown 8 percent last year, a fact the Democrats were naturally keen to trumpet, but inflation hit ordinary Thais in their wallets. Soaring oil prices could hardly be blamed on the government and commodity prices are rising everywhere. But, to take just one example, with Thailand as the world’s third-largest producer of palm oil, the disappearance of the country’s most popular cooking oil from the shelves looked at best incompetent, at worst downright sinister. You can bombard the public with abstract macroeconomic statistics, but when the price of everything from eggs to palm oil to pat kraphrao mu rises, you don’t look economically competent.
Of course, the major parties’ policy platforms were widely decried as “populist”. But some populism seemed more popular than others. Pheu Thai’s pledge to raise daily minimum wages to 300 baht, fanciful – and worrying – promises to end Thailand’s drugs problem within a year and offers of credit cards to farmers and taxi drivers were the kind of things many voters wanted to hear. Of course, Pheu Thai now has to actually deliver on its promises, but that is another story.
Here, I’ve tried to sketch some of the factors that gave Pheu Thai the edge over the Democrat Party. What I haven’t talked about is something equally crucial: the battle for the Northeast, fought primarily between Pheu Thai and Bhum Jai Thai, the party of Thaksin Shinawatra’s infamous former right-hand man, Newin Chidchob. The failure of Bhum Jai Thai to gain ground in Isarn – it won just 34 seats instead of a projected 70 – is key to understanding why Yingluck Shinwatra is now set to become prime minister of Thailand. In my next post, I’ll look at why things went wrong for Newin, who’s been notably silent since his party’s humiliating defeat.
Dan Waites can be followed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danwaites.