The Decay of Palang Pracharath

On the evening of January 30, not long after polls closed in Lak Si and Chatuchak, the Palang Pracharath candidate Saralrasmi Jenjaka spoke to the press. Sitting next to her was her husband Sira Jenjaka, the seat’s previous holder, removed from office late last year for failing to disclose a disqualifying criminal conviction. Sira said that he hoped his wife would get more than 35,000 votes —  a little over the amount he garnered in 2019. 

By the time Saralrasmi took the stage again later at night, she had received less than 8,000 votes.  

To paraphrase Hamlet, something is rotten in the state of Palang Pracharath. The mightiest of the ruling parties, three years out from a general election in which it won the largest number of votes, was reduced to the status of fourth place in a byelection for seat it previously held. This comes on the heels of two closer losses in the south. 

It is an oft-repeated warning that byelections are an imperfect marker of the national sentiment, and an unreliable forecast of how things might play out in the next general election. But losing three in a row — particularly with such a striking decline in vote share as in Lak Si and Chatuchak, and especially after a string of government victories up to this point — seems to be indicative of at least some sort of decay. The sort of decay which, indeed, if left without arrest, could prove to be an interminable disease.  

Since the 2019 general election, the party has morphed into something that barely resembles what it was at its inception. It started life primarily as a vehicle to ensure Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha could remain in office. The leadership was staffed by the “Four Sons” faction aligned with former economic tsar Somkid Jatusripitak. One can critique their policies, but it is hard to deny that were heavily invested in formulating a long-term economic vision for the country. Their technocratic credentials provided the party with presentability — even as it vacuumed old-style politicians and local bosses from other parties. 

Now, much has changed. The head of the party is Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, possibly Thailand’s most powerful politician, and until recently, the secretary-general was Captain Thammanat Promphao. Neither quite fit the role of the popular icon. Nor are they known for technical competence. It is also public knowledge that last year the party was gripped by infighting as a failed plot was hatched to depose Prayut, who by some distance remains the most popular candidate amongst conservatives for prime minister. 

Divorcing yourself in clandestine but public ways from possibly the only figure affiliated with the party to have any degree of popularity was bound to be a losing cause for Palang Pracharath. The party’s only raison d’être in the public eye is to be Prayut’s knights. By proving an unreliable ally for the prime minister, the party was signing its own death warrant. As skilled at the various political dark arts as Prawit and Thammanat are, placing the Thai equivalent of Mitch McConnnell as the face of the party was a dubious choice. 

The paradox is that the roots of the party’s unpopularity is not difficult to discern, but immensely difficult for the party to fix. It could try to bridge its distance with Prayut, reinvite respected technocrats to burnish the party’s credentials and put its most unpopular figures back behind the scenes. But without Prawit at its helm to maintain order amongst its squabbling factions, can it survive? Would respectable experts wish to associate themselves with the party’s damaged image? 

And above all: would it ever be willing to repair its ties with Prayut? It is heavily whispered that Prawit would be quite happy to ally with Pheu Thai, a prospect Prayut would never approve, and indeed Pheu Thai’s lack of willingness to scrutinize the deputy prime minister shows some eagerness at this prospect. The ostentatious displays of fraternity between the three comrade-in-arms of Prayut, Prawit and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda betrays deeply frayed relations behind the scenes. 

Even the most recent ostracism of Thammanat, said to have been done at Prayut’s request, possibly revealed a deeper Prawit and Thammanat plot to dangle a dagger at the prime minister’s desire to remain in office. In the aftermath,, Prayut turned on the 1990s hit Yar Yorm Pae (“Don’t Give Up”) at a CCSA meeting and announced, “I won’t let myself lose to anyone.” The fact that it was widely interpreted as directed to his ostensible allies says much about public perception. 

One could argue that the stinging losses in the recent run of elections were driven primarily by unique local factors. In Lak Si and Chatuchak, for example, Sira’s antics and scandals unavoidably tainted his wife, while in the south, Thammanat’s infamous call to vote for rich politicians from a good lineage appears to have utterly backfired. 

But that alone points to deeper roots of political decay: how has the party that won the most votes in the country three years previously become so out of touch with popular sentiment that it believed it could run a disgraced MP’s wife and win, or disrespect southern voters so and come out on top? Party leaders perhaps think that simply repeating “khon la krueng” is the foolproof route to electoral success, Prawit’s modern day veni, vidi, vici. Voters showed this isn’t necessarily the case. 

Of course, Palang Pracharath could continue to limp along and remain a force at the next general election. In constituencies where its local machines remaine supportive, it certainly still has enough to triumph. But the odds are against it repeating its performance in 2019.

For one, it no longer has a clear rationale for existence. It is a political Frankenstein, ideologically incoherent even by Thailand’s standards, made up of various factions ready to jump ship and go home once the time comes. The government leadership’s reluctance to call a Bangkok gubernatorial election absent a strong Palang Pracharath candidate reflects both its damaged brand and possibly its fear that should the fragility of its voter base in the capital be exposed, many of its politicians would be ready to head for the exits. Its local ties in the provinces, while formidable, do not necessarily trump longer established options as demonstrated in the south.

Palang Pracharath’s claims as a pro-Prayut party, on the other hand, is no longer trusted by many of its former voters — and indeed it will diminish further if Prayut ever launches his own party. It is too interested with an alliance with Pheu Thai, and indeed made up of too many of its former members, to paint itself as a credible anti-Thaksin option. It may be a vehicle for Prawit’s interests, but where is the market for that?

The ironic thing is that the party that has never had much time for democratic ideals is now suffering from the unescapable consequences of ignoring popular sentiment. On one hand, it has never been the party of choice for those opposed to Prayut’s premiership. On the other hand, it has alienated its core base of those who support Prayut. In the end, the laws of political gravity whilst engaging in democratic competition cannot be escaped. 

Just a week ago, party leaders were loudly proclaiming that Palang Pracharath is not a phuk shapor kit (“single-mission party”). But it increasingly looks like it is one, and it cannot defy the eventual disappearance that has befallen these parties. We do not hear today of the Seri Manangkasila party, formed to retain General Plaek Phibunsongkram as premier. Neither do we spend much time considering Sammaki Tham, created to protect the power members of the National Peacekeeping Council in the 1990s. 

Palang Pracharath will probably join the ranks of these military-aligned parties. It will warrant a mention in the history books, to be sure. But nonetheless it will be largely forgotten. Unless any of its leaders reverses its decay —  if they are even interested in doing so — that is its likely fate. 

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