Four takeaways from Thailand’s 2020 local elections

Thailand held its first local elections since the 2014 military coup on Sunday, amid the return of local coronavirus transmission and months of political protests. Across the nation, votes were cast for Provincial Administrative Organization (POA) candidates. 

After a long suspension of local democracy, did these PAO elections mark a new chapter for Thai politics? Is there anything useful we can learn from the results? Here are four key takeaways. 

1. A good night for political dynasties

Local elections in Thailand has always been dominated by local strongmen, big families and political machines. Pork-barrel politics and patronage ensures local loyalty, while local “persons of influence” (phoo mee itiphon) can use a variety of tactics — legal and not, monetary and otherwise — to deliver votes for a candidate. This election was no different, with hua kanaen (“vote deliverers”) being caught in several provinces. (A selection from recent days: Trang, Nakhon Pathom, Kanchanaburi.) 

This year was no different, and local bosses made a strong showing nationwide. Some examples which illustrate the general rule: In Chainat, Anusorn Nakasai, brother to Palang Pracharath secretary-general Anucha Nakasai, triumphed. In Buriram, a relative of the local magnate Newin Chidchob won handily. In Sra Kaew, the local Tientong family propelled yet another family member to victory. In Phayao, the brother of Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Promphao won. 

Thailand, according to Harvard professor Daniel Smith, is a country with one of the world’s highest proportions of dynastic politicians. These local elections will ensure that this trend continues, as offices such as the PAO have traditionally provided banks of candidates for parties to draw from in future parliamentary elections. And even as Thailand has advanced towards more ideologically-driven national conversations, local elections remain driven as much as ever by machine politics. 

2. Parties more visible in local elections

Political party branding was strong for this year’s local elections. In previous years, candidates often unofficially affiliated with national parties. According to BBC Thai, this is the first year multiple parties officially fielded candidates who campaigned in branded gear. For PAO chairman, The Progressive Movement competed in 42 provinces, Pheu Thai in 25 and the Democrats in two. Palang Pracharath and Bhumjaithai still chose to disallow formal use of party branding even as several closely affiliated candidates ran.

But despite attempts to increasingly align local politicians to party brands, it’s still evident that local dynamics will trump the national conversation in most constituencies. It’s also difficult to interpret what the results mean for their parties nationally, given that several candidates are still not running publicly with their parties. The Democrats’ celebration of a victory in Songkla (there only one, given they came short in Satun) is hardly a sign of vitality for a party widely assumed to be headed for extinction, given how other candidates unofficially affiliated with the party performed poorly in other traditional strongholds such as Surat Thani. 

A trend worth paying attention to moving forward is the increasing number of national politicians who have chosen to enter local politics, which some feel is a more fruitful space than sitting on the opposition benches in parliament. If this continues in the future, the degree of party identification with these politicians will be even higher.

3. The Thaksin brand is still alive, but what about Pheu Thai’s?

One race that was given ample attention was Chiang Mai’s PAO chairman election. Pichai Lertpongadsiron ran under the Pheu Thai banner but was facing competition from Bunlert Booranupakorn, who was backed by red shirt leader Jatuporn Promphan. 

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose public statements and overt interventions in Thai politics have become rarer in recent years, chose to insert himself into this local race in dramatic fashion. On December 3rd, Thaksin sent an open letter written in local dialect to Chiang Mai residents, saying that if his hometown’s people were to abandon him, he would “feel very sad.”

Stating that he was unable to act at the national level as Pheu Thai is in the opposition, so he wished to help Chiang Mai solve local problems, which he could do by providing advice to Pichai. Thaksin reminded voters of the years of his premiership and said “good things will return” once Pichai is elected. Thaksin followed up this letter with a recorded video on December 16th, once again in support of Pichai.

Pichai duly won the election with a sizable margin. Once again, it is perilous to draw too many conclusions from the results of a local election. But Thaksin’s gambit ultimately worked, and it is evidence that the Thaksin brand remains strong, perhaps more so than his party’s, even as the former premier has spent close to a decade and a half in exile. Pheu Thai itself won only 9 of the PAO chairman seats it contested, which may be a consequence of its weakening at the local level after an extended period in which Palang Pracharath has lured its personnel away. We can only wonder whether the Pheu Thai brand can remain successful if it were to ever distance itself further from Thaksin.

4. On first big play, Progressive Movement falters

The Progressive Movement was founded as a new political vehicle for Future Forward Party founder Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit after he was barred from formally engaging in politics earlier this year. And since its founding, one of the Progressive Movement’s key goals was to act as a platform in local elections nationwide.

Publicly, the organization’s leadership had broadcasted high hopes, with Thanathorn saying just one day before the election that the Progressive Movement “must win in a landslide.” But despite the setting of high expectations, there were signs that not all would be well. As the progressive newsletter The Bastion noted, the Election Commission’s decision to hold the election on a weekend between two major holidays and disallow early voting ensures low turnout from voters who live out of province, which were among the key blocs that powered Future Forward’s strong performance in 2019. 

Yet the final results must still be described as a disappointment for the Progressive Movement. They won 17% of the popular vote in the provinces they contested, which is broadly in line with Future Forward’s nationwide result last year. However, this did not translate to victory in any of the 42 PAO chairman positions they sought. Supporters of the Prayut government have already begun gloating about the results, with commentator Pat Hemasuk declaring that the Progressive Movement “will only win in one province: Twitterburi.” 

Progressives, in the coming days, will surely point to irregularities and the aforementioned efforts to suppress out of province votes as an explanation for the Progressive Movement’s dismal performance. But there will others who question whether the Progressive Movement is on the wrong track. Thanathorn himself conceded in his press conference that his rhetoric on the monarchy may have affected the results, although a full analysis will have to come later. When combined with waning attendance at pro-reform protests and the track record of opposition candidates in losing several parliamentary by-elections, it will be difficult to deny that soul-searching may be needed.

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