Five things to watch for in post-lockdown politics

In late February and early March, Thailand looked like it had arrived at a political turning point. A no-confidence debate aimed at multiple cabinet ministers had just failed. A wave of student demonstrations had erupted across the country, sparked by anger at the dissolution of the Future Forward Party on February 21.

Less than a year after the 2019 election, the Prayut government’s first major test seemed to have arrived. 

All of this was, of course, upended very quickly as the coronavirus crisis escalated worldwide. In the past two months, politics has taken a back seat as the government grappled with the public health response. Now that the lockdown is slowly being eased, however, and parliament is due to convene later this month, political life may be resuming some level of normalcy. 

As some liveliness is injected back into Thai politics, here are some things to watch out for:

1. What happens to the student movement?

There is little doubt that the momentum of the movement was lost just as its energy was reaching an unprecedented level. Jood tid, Thai people like to say of protests: “the flame has been sparked.” Future Forward’s dissolution provided the necessary fuel, and before the coronavirus crisis worsened the protests showed little sign of slowing down. Demonstrations continued to be scheduled up to mid-March, before the lockdown ensured that mass gatherings were banned. 

The pandemic has taken the wind out of the movement’s sails, and it looks unlikely that they will be able to resume anytime soon. As long as there is no coronavirus vaccine — and experts assume it will be at least a year before one is available — the government has a good reason to ensure that mass gatherings are not allowed to resume. 

Yet there are some signs of life. In late April, the Student Union of Thailand organized a “#MobFromHome” online campaign, while this month a small demonstration was held in front of the Ministry of Commerce demanding adequate financial assistance to people affected by the lockdown. It is unlikely that the student movement will be go gently into the good night, and once conditions permit demonstrations are likely to resume. Whether or not they will resume with the same vigor and energy as in the immediate aftermath of Future Forward’s dissolution remains an open question, however. 

2. Has the government gained or lost popularity?

Ruling parties around the world have benefitted from the coronavirus crisis. US President Donald Trump’s approval ratings rose briefly, while the Conservative Party in the UK also saw a rise in public support.  

For Thailand, the data has been mixed. On one hand, Super Poll revealed that support for the government’s approval rating increased from 36.2% to 46.9% (a result which was quickly touted by Palang Pracharath members.) Such a rise of support could be attributable to the fact that Thailand has mostly brought the epidemic under control and has been spared the overwhelmed health systems and mounting death tolls that other nations have faced. 

But on the other hand, other polls show a “rally around the flag” effect has eluded the Prayut government, In the International Survey on Coronavirus, for example, Thailand ranks behind only Venezuela in the percentage of respondents which did not trust the government to take care of its citizens. A Suan Dust Poll found that 58.75% were not confident of the government’s ability to take care of the crisis. Online criticism of the government continues to be as severe as ever, focusing particularly on unclear communication and the deficiency of the 5,000 baht assistance program.

The long-term effects of this pandemic on the government’s popularity will likely be known only after the economic impact becomes clearer. But given that Thailand’s economy was anemic even before the lockdown — poverty was rising, inequality was widening and growth was among the slowest in the region — a rapid recovery does not seem likely, and this could have severe repercussions for the government’s standing. 

3. Is the coalition government stable?

The Prayut administration is one of Thailand’s shakier governments. Palang Pracharath, with only 119 MPs in the 500-seat lower house, is dependent on the nineteen other coalition parties to continue in government and pass legislation. 

This pandemic is unlikely to have strengthened the bonds of these parties. Bhumjaithai and the Democrats, the two most important coalition partners with 61 and 52 seats respectively, may have felt alienated in particular. Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul, a key figure in the crisis response as public health minister was heavily criticized for repeated gaffes. Democrat leader and commerce minister Jurin Laksanawisit, on the other hand, was entangled in a scandal surrounding face masks. Eventually, after a declaration of the state of emergency, both leaders were perceived to have been sidelined as power was delegated to the ministries’ permanent secretaries. 

PPRP itself has found itself haunted by infighting. Little unites PPRP beyond support for the prime minister, and the party contains a number of factions, including many defectors from Pheu Thai. It was widely reported that many factions desired the replacement of party leader Uttama Savanayana with deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwon, as party members felt they were not given prominent enough roles in responding to the crisis. Only after Prayut signaled his support for the current party leadership did tensions decrease. 

There is no reason to believe that the collapse of the coalition is imminent or even likely, especially since the Senate continues to have power in appointing the prime minister. But these struggles remind us that the government is fragile, with so many stakeholders to satisfy. 

4. How will the opposition fare? 

Times of crisis can be difficult for opposition leaders. Criticize too strongly and they are accused of politicizing the crisis, but at the same time the work of scrutinizing the government must go on. 

The Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties have had little opportunity to act, as Speaker Chuan Leekpai and government whips insisted that parliament should resume in late May. It is difficult to tell how the opposition will fare, however. On one hand, there are a lot of effective attack lines that opposition MPs will bound to use related to the government’s handling of the crisis. On the other hand, the opposition suffers from a dearth of high-profile, recognizable leaders. Key figures such as Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Sudarat Keyuraphan are all outside parliament. Leader of the opposition Sompong Amornvivat inspires few people. Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat is still relatively new and untested, and continues to be dogged by allegations of domestic abuse.

The Move Forward party has also quickly become embroiled in legal trouble. PPRP figures have stepped up to accuse the party of being influenced by outside figures, namely the former Future Forward leaders of the Progressive Movement. Whether this will lead to formal legal action and party dissolution remains to be seen. 

5. When will local elections happen? 

One fossil of the military government is Bangkok governor Asawin Kwanmueang, appointed by the junta in 2016. His role in the spotlight as he leads the capital during this coronavirus crisis is a reminder that local elections have not yet been held, and they are unlikely to be held while this crisis continues. 

But even as an election date has not yet been set, parties will continue to spend this time preparing and looking for candidates for the Bangkok gubernatorial election. The current frontrunner is popular former transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt, who has announced an independent candidacy. It remains to be seen whether Pheu Thai will run candidates given Chadchart’s affinity with them. PPRP’s search for a candidate also continues; their desire for a strong candidate is palpable as the local election would be a key test of popularity in Bangkok. PPRP does face an obstacle in the form of the Democrat party, however, which has won successive elections in Bangkok for years and will be keen to produce a comeback in the quest for City Hall after its humiliating rout in the general elections last year. 

How Thai politics in the post-lockdown period will progress is anyone’s guess. But this much is clear: the volatility and divisiveness that has characterized political life here for the past two decades will continue. 

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