Analysis: The Decline of Pheu Thai Party

“With respect, I must say that if the government is unable to answer my aforementioned questions, I will not be able to support this budget.” 

A threat issued by no lesser a figure than the leader of the opposition to the prime minister during the budget debate, but a threat also characteristic of the current state of Pheu Thai: without flair, unpublicized, and ultimately empty.

Sompong Amornvivat sits at the head of the largest party in parliament. In regular Westminster-style politics, this is a role that would yield him, at the very least, a highly visible bully pulpit from which he can challenge the government. 

That this is not the case is the result of both character and circumstance. After all, he is not in his post because of his charisma but because Pheu Thai’s most well-known icons are currently locked out of parliament as the party was not allocated any party-list seats. His ministerial resumé is long, but largely unknown by the general public. He also happens to lead an opposition that, due to the 2017 constitution, has no realistic method of replacing the incumbent government anytime soon. 

It must be said that on paper, the party is still a force to be reckoned with. Thaksin’s various political machines have come first in every general election in the 21st century.

In 2019 that electoral magic was still strong: political scientists Allen Hicken and Joel Selway found that Pheu Thai won in 54% of the seats it contested, exactly the same rate of victory as in its 2011 heyday. It continues to maintain a base of support in the north and northeast, the regions which continually propel the party towards electoral dominance. 

Dig a little deeper, however, and last year’s election results reveal a significantly weakened party. Since 2011, Pheu Thai’s average provincial vote share had fallen from 44.3% to 22.3%: a significant decline of 50%. 

Not that this is entirely astonishing. Utilizing the power of patronage politics, Palang Pracharath successfully poached several ex-Pheu Thai politicians with strong local ties and reaped the rewards. The Future Forward party, on the other hand, successfully courted many anti-regime voters who could have otherwise gone for Pheu Thai. 

It could also be the result of the gradual fading of the Thaksin brand. That Pheu Thai remains inextricably tied, in the public perception, to the former prime minister is undeniable. Yet Thaksin has now been out of power for fourteen years. The youngest eligible voters today would not even have been born when Thaksin was first elected.

It is far from inconceivable that Pheu Thai’s appeal has receded with the memory of a once towering figure. 

All this makes for an unenviable position, to say the least, even from the viewpoint of other smaller opposition parties. As battered as Move Forward is by its defections and legal challenges, the party continues to have a strong raison d’être: as the progressive voice in parliament, utterly unafraid to challenge old norms, amplifying the views of a new generation. Although it has lost the momentum of its predecessor, the party still remains firmly in the public’s attention. 

The current polling reveals in even starker terms the precariousness of Pheu Thai’s position. A recent SUPER Poll put Move Forward in first place if an election were held today, narrowly ahead of Pheu Thai. A NIDA poll last month, on the other hand, showed that the party’s most prominent prime ministerial candidate, Sudarat Keyuraphan, garnered only 8% support, while the leader of the opposition, Sompong, was supported by a meager 0.99%. 

(It is worth mentioning here, however, that the favored prime minister poll was hardly good news for Move Forward either. Pita Limjaroenrat, the party’s leader, garnered only 3.93%, far below where former Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit had polled.) 

Unsurprising, then, that the party is now beginning to fracture as its members jump ship. First it was reported in May that a Pheu Thai stalwart, Chaturon Chaisang, would be forming a new poiltical party. But making more waves was the formation of a political group, Care (Creative, Action, Revival and People’s Empowerment), by several politicians formerly aligned with Pheu Thai. 

The exact circumstances of this split remain unclear; newspapers reported last month on a heated Pheu Thai meeting, where Care’s politicians were accused of “burning their home.” Others, however, have speculated that Care is likely to serve a similar role as the now-defunct Thai Raksa Chart party, in order to game the 2017 constitution’s electoral formula. Care, some say, are more likely to be able to siphon younger voters back from Move Forward. 

It is important, of course, not to write the party’s obituary quite yet. With its underlying regional strength, Pheu Thai will likely remain a political force in the years to come. But this is no guarantee that it will continue to be the strongest alternative to the military establishment; just ask the Democrats, who suffered a massive decline in 2019 even in its southern base as other options became viable to their base. Without changes in leadership, the party could become yet more moribound. 

In the near term, the concrete effects of these struggles are already manifest: Thailand’s largest parliamentary party is unable to capitalize effectively on the government’s own woes. But the party’s inner turmoil, decline and eclipse means also illuminates the depth of the continued realignment of Thai politics that has been ongoing since 2019. 

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