Clan politics is bad for Thai democracy 

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The prospect that Paetongtarn Shinawatra is likely to be Pheu Thai’s nominee for prime minister at the next election brings with it a certain sense of déjà vu. 

Most obviously, it echoes their decision 11 years earlier to nominate Yingluck Shinawatra to run the country, and of its predecessor Palang Prachachon party to pick Somchai Wongsawat as premier. That all three share family ties with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra — a daughter, sister and brother in law — cannot escape notice. 

Lest we be accused of picking on Pheu Thai, however, we should also be reminded that this is a tradition not only within Pheu Thai, but also a very common practice across Thai political parties.

Political clans dominate Thailand to an extraordinary extent, a fact starkly revealed in research by Yoshinori Nishizaki, a professor at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Since 1988, he discovered, more than half of parliamentary seats in Thailand were won by members of political families. 

The negative effects of such a system where family name matters above all are numerous. For one, it is bad for representation. If we subscribe to the theory that governments and legislatures should be a microcosm of society — that they, in a sense, should represent all of us, not just a privileged few — it is difficult to see how a politics perpetually dominated by elite clans can be a good thing.

Even more stunning is Nishizaki’s data on female politicians. In 2018 (before the 2019 general election), he found that since 1975, Thailand has elected 251 female MPs, out of a total of 2,502. A staggering 70 percent of those female MPs belong to political families, and female MPs are twice as likely to belong to a political dynasty as their male counterparts. Nishizaki notes that this is not because women are less capable than male politicians. Rather, he writes, “it suggests that in the androcentric world of Thai politics, relying on well-tested kinship connections constitutes perhaps the easiest route to power.” 

What message do we send to ambitious young people, particularly young women, when the vast majority of our female leaders may have had to rely to some degree on family ties to attain office? 

It is also possible that legacy candidates also lead to worse policy outcomes. A 2015 study in Japan, for example, showed that Japanese prefectures with higher numbers of politicians with family ties received more relatively greater distributive benefits from the central government, but achieved worse economic outcomes. It would be very interesting to see the results of a similar study in Thailand, where legacy candidates have proliferated at similar extents. 

This is not to say that hereditary politicians are always a bad thing. Some may be genuinely better-trained and ready to serve after a lifetime of observation; others are strong enough leaders that they could have attained office with their own merit. But to have over half our politicians have previous kinship ties points to a democracy that is manifestly flawed. 

Of course, the fact that Pheu Thai is perpetuating old style politics is not surprising. A core reason for the party’s existence continues to be as a means to further Thaksin’s interests, and it appears that the former premier has calculated once again that his interests are best protected by having another Shinawatra in Government House. The new title his daughter has been given is “Head of the Pheu Thai Family,” but it is no secret that the true head of the family stills calls the shots. 

This unfortunately demonstrates, however, that political parties in Thailand still act primarily not as institutions driven by ideology and policy preferences, but rather as vehicles for political clans seeking to maintain a route to power. There is no Pheu Thai independent of the Shinawatras — just as it can be said that there is no Bhumjaithai without the Chidchobs and Charnvirakuls, or no Chart Thai Pattana without the Silpa-archas. The only party that can plausibly claim to genuinely be a long-standing institution, the Democrats, is currently a shadow of its former self. 

A mature democracy requires a more equitable playing field by which politicians can attain power. Unfortunately, this is not something that citizens can fix alone. It requires the self-discipline of our political parties to run genuine contests of ideas and vision. For Thailand’s largest political party to continue its practice of picking one Shinawatra after another bodes ill for any such reform to our politics. 

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