No new dawn of ‘moderate politics’ in Thailand

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In the days since Chadchart Sittipunt overwhelmingly won the Bangkok gubernatorial election, it has become fashionable for pundits to say that this represents a victory for moderate politics in Thailand. 

A Bangkok Post editorial announced that “the result serves as a huge victory for people of a moderate political stance…voters made it clear they are fed up with color-coded conflicts.”

The Economist argued that voters “overwhelmingly supported a moderate candidate with conciliatory views.”

A headline in the Khrungthep Thurakij proclaimed that Chadchart’s win represents “a politics where people are bored of ‘sides.’”

Meanwhile, Komchadluek said that the people are “tired of political conflict and are no longer attached to ideology.” 

As political earthquakes go, Chadchart’s victory would rank high on the richter scale. Against a crowded and qualified field, he won over fifty percent of the vote. The democratic mandate as bestowed by the people of Bangkok is unmistakable.

But beyond that, what sort of signal did this political earthquake truly send? Is it true that his win represents the victory of political moderation, of a certain sort of Thai centrism? 

At first glance, it is tempting to make that argument. Chadchart is the most successful independent candidate in Bangkok politics in two decades. In 2013, Seripisuth Temeeyaves ran as an independent and finished with six percent of the vote — a distant third place. Suharit Siamwalla, a famous DJ, also ran an unorthodox independent campaign, utilizing no election banners and relying solely on social media (quite unusual for the time!) and garnered three percent. They were unsurprising results for a polarized political climate: almost all the votes went to the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties, then representing what was akin to Thailand’s two party system. 

It is imperative to ask, then, whether the polarized political climate that was prevalent then remains now. One would be hard-pressed to say that it is not. Thais remain divided in two opposing camps — no longer called “red” and “yellow”, perhaps, but the two camps very much exists. Ordinary conversation about the Bangkok gubernatorial election reflected this. People still saw two categories of candidates: those who represent the conservative establishment and those who represent the anti-government opposition. Indeed, I have met few people who did not instantly “eliminate” candidates from the camp they oppose from consideration. 

If many were still voting according to their political affiliation, then, would it be possible to say that Chadchart’s victory truly represents a win for “moderate politics”? 

Chadchart certainly would be considered more moderate and conciliatory compared to a candidate like the Move Forward Party’s Wiroj Lakkanadisorn. But he also had a massive base of voters who were ready to support him. In 2013, Pheu Thai had already gained a little over a million votes in the Bangkok election. It is reasonable to infer this base largely stayed with Chadchart, who was most recently Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate in 2019, even if some were peeled off to other candidates like Wiroj. 

Chadchart’s disavowal of his former party’s label, along with an effective and positive campaign, successfully converted a couple hundred thousand more voters. Many anti-Thaksin voters who would otherwise have refused to support a Pheu Thai candidate found the prospect of voting for an independent candidate palatable. But it seems like a stretch to declare that as truly a victory for a politics where “people are bored of sides.”

Furthermore, I would reject the suggestion that Chadchart’s victory is a harbinger for any further advances in the easing of Thai political division. In fact, the next general election — whenever it comes — is likely to be considerably uglier than any in recent memory.

There will be no “independent candidate” à la Chadchart running for prime minister in the next election. All candidates will be nominated by a political party, as they are required to be, and so there is no escaping the baggage that comes with partisan affiliation. 

Indeed, the candidates that are likely to be nominated will strike up intense emotions. It is looking increasingly likely that Paethongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s daughter, will be nominated as Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate. Simply the last name alone is a deal breaker for those who have long opposed Thaksin’s continuing influence in Thai politics. Meanwhile, it is still possible that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will be running for a third term, if he survives the political landmines that await him in the next few months. Emotions towards him in the anti-establishment camp are just as viscerally negative. 

In short, the next general election will possibly feature two candidates for premier that are radioactive to large segments of the population. This hardly promises the largely policy-driven debates that characterized the gubernatorial election. Instead, ideological and factional concerns will likely take center stage as the parties try to get out their base. 

Parties that try to position themselves as ‘centrist’ alternatives, on the other hand, are unlikely to experience anything like the level of success that Chadchart saw. Take the Sang Anakhot Thai Party, led by former finance minister Uttama Saonayon. On paper, it is arguably the closest to a ‘centrist’ party as one can find. Its messaging is usually unpolitical, focused instead on economic issues. Its leaders were the founders of Palang Pracharath. But it counts Suranand Vejjajiva, formerly a Pheu Thai stalwart, among its executives. 

Most importantly, the party recently confirmed that it will not nominate Prayut for prime minister. Additionally, according to Suranand, the party will refuse to join any coalition with Prayut at its head. The party is instead nominating Somkid Jatusripitak, a technocrat who served both Thaksin and Prayut, as prime minister. Declaring that the party is “not of the extreme left or extreme right”, secretary-general Sontirat Sontijirawong insisted the party is “taking the middle path.”

This middle path may well work if people are truly bored of sides. But color me skeptical that Thai politics is ready for it. On social media, many pro-Prayut voters vented their fury about the party refusing to support the prime minister for another term. On the other hand, voters opposed to Prayut are likely to be too turned off by the leaders’ former PPRP credentials to support the party when alternatives more markedly anti-government exist. Of course, there are no absolutes and certainties in politics it is, and a lot can change between now and the next poll. Yet it is very possible that the SAT will unfortunately find itself in a centrist no-man’s land. 

Like many people, I hope that one day Thai politics can ease off the divisions that has plagued us for two decades. Voters may, indeed, be ‘bored of sides.’ But to think that the Bangkok election was any sign of a new dawn in Thai politics where polarization will fade is, unfortunately, probably just wishful thinking. 

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