Opinion – Can Anutin become Thailand’s next prime minister?

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“A man’s worth,” the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once said, “is no greater than his ambitions.” If this is true both for people and parties, then the Bhumjai Thai party’s value is high indeed.

Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, Bhumjai Thai’s leader, recently made clear his grand ambitions for the party at a rally in Lopburi province. The party cannot refuse to lead the next government, Anutin declared, if they were to win 200 seats at the next general election due next year. At the very least, Anutin noted, the party was looking to double the number of ministries the party controls from three to six.

As for himself? “Shower us with a lot of votes. Don’t be shy,” Anutin exhorted, “I’ll be the prime minister if I must.”

A touch of reluctance, perhaps, but make no mistake: this is an ambitious party that knows its electoral worth. The question that remains is: is the party broadly correct in its aims, or is it overestimating its own appeal to voters?

Bhumjai Thai has had an eventful tenure in government since joining Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s coalition in 2019. Anutin took over the Health Ministry, ostensibly to promote the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, only to find himself saddled only a year into his job with guiding Thailand’s response to a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

Thailand was throughout most of 2020 one of the most successful countries in the world at handling the coronavirus, but Anutin came under heavy fire in 2021 as his vaccine procurement plans were broadly criticized. He managed to turn a page this year, however, when he finally accomplished his campaign goal of medical marijuana legalization.

All this time, Bhumjai Thai has become political hot property, drawing in scores of defectors from other parties. Anutin thus leads the second biggest party in the coalition, although he curiously has not bargained this into more cabinet seats at the weakened Democrats’ expense.

Now, of course, even as he chastises reporters for asking about his own prime ministerial ambitions, Anutin is publicly bargaining for the whole deal.

One Hit Wonder

Before we imagine Anutin making a triumphant entrance into Government House next year as prime minister, however, it would be fruitful to make note of some key limitations that continue to hamper the possibility of Bhumjai Thai emerging as a coalition leader at the next election.

For one, Bhumjai Thai faces the challenge of finding a policy as catchy and appealing to broad swathes of the electorate to run on as it did in 2019 with cannabis legalization. The success of the marijuana policy is noteworthy because it allowed Bhumjai Thai to convert itself from being merely a party focused on serving its local constituencies, such as Buriram, into a party with true nationwide appeal.

But can the party repeat this trick at the next election, or will it be a one-hit wonder? Anutin has been brandishing the slogan pood laew tum (“We do what we promise”) at party rallies, to emphasize that the party can be relied upon to follow through on its pledges. But what, exactly, will it pledge next time that will be appealing enough for voters?

We see some glimmers of a new strategy. At the Lopburi rally, Anutin promised that he would

  • seek a three-year debt moratorium intended to help poorer households through the Covid recovery.
  • He also said that the party would call for 300-500 million Baht in funding for each province to develop tourism.

These are big promises, certainly, but it remains to be seen whether or not Bhumjai Thai can package it in a way as memorable as its weed campaign in 2019.

Bhumjai Thai must also contend with the fact that its ability at backroom dealing does not necessarily translate to electoral strength. It will have to defend a number of vulnerable seats at the next election that were gained due to defections from the now-defunct Future Forward Party.

The two parties could not be more different: Bhumjai Thai is fundamentally conservative but still highly pragmatic and largely lacking in ideology, while Future Forward was staunchly progressive and clear in its beliefs. These constituency-seat MPs, although relatively few in number, will be particularly at-risk of seeing the ire of voters at the next election.

Buriram First

It is also unclear whether the party can truly step outside its local niche and become a truly nationwide party. In July 2021, during the worst of the pandemic, a report by the Thailand Development Research Institute found that Buriram, widely recognized as Bhumjai Thai’s capital, had received some of the country’s biggest vaccine allocations despite not being a high-infection area and not being a tourist destination.

It is evident that Bhumjai Thai still places high emphasis on its ‘home turf,’ even at risk of damaging its nationwide appeal.

In addition, there is still every possibility that its policies over the past few years have lost the party some support. Judging by social media response, the government’s own base of conservative voters is not enamored by the Health Ministry’s approach to marijuana legalization.

All of this poses big stumbling blocks to Bhumjai Thai’s ability to win enough seats on its own to lead a coalition. In fact, it probably knows this. What does look more possible is that Anutin will become prime minister due to coalition negotiations that yield him as a consensus voice. (Never forget that M.R. Kukrij Pramoj became prime minister despite his party having only 18 seats.)

That said, the party’s policy successes, media attention and hefty resources all ensure that it is well placed to, at the very least, retain its pre-election strength. It will likely continue to make inroads in regions such as the south, even as it may continue to be stymied in urban areas.

It is also a remarkable turn of events that the Bhumjai Thai leader is even seen as a viable prime ministerial candidate at all. In a fall from grace, few ever discuss the Democrat Party’s leader as a potential national leader, while Anutin is recognized as the far more likely dark horse.

And should the cards fall in all the right ways, Anutin could very well accidentally become Thailand’s next prime minister.

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