The Baan Yai: Is All Politics Local?

The Chart Thai Pattana Party has an illustrious history. It claims descent from the now-deceased Chart Thai Party, which propelled two leaders to the prime ministership: Chatichai Choonhavan, in 1988, and Banharn Silpa-archa, in 1995. In its last years it is the latter figure that the party came to be identified with. Banharn, whose grip over his stronghold of Supanburi was legendary, reliably ensured that the party won seats in parliament. After the party’s dissolution by the Constitutional Court, the successor Chart Thai Pattana Party has remained a family business, run first by Banharn’s brother Chumpol, then his daughter Kanjana, and now his son Varawut. 

Under Varawut, a smooth speaker who holds degrees from University College London and Wisconsin, the party’s image has been going through a steady makeover. Banharn was known as a hyperlocal figure; it is usually said that during his premiership, the Thai government invested vast sums into developing Supanburi. To be sure, Varawut is still dedicated first and foremost to the project of serving Supanburi. At a recent rally, he beseeched his listeners to remember what ‘Father Banharn’ did for the province. But Varawut’s goals go further than that.

After becoming the Environment and Natural Resources Minister in the Prayut coalition, Varaut has turned his party into Thailand’s standard bearer for environmentalism. The party’s goal, it announced, is to build a “sustainable country” that uses green strategies to propel the country forward. Part of its policy platform is promoting the selling of carbon credits. “The environment,” the party says, “is not an option, but a solution.” 

A policy-focused platform: a refreshing look, certainly, and something that only improves our politics. But blink, and you’ll miss it. Even at this early stage in the campaign, the party’s campaign message is already being overridden by a much more pressing priority: an invasion on its home turf. Prime Minister Prayut’s Ruam Thai Sang Chat Party is said to have called Chanchai Prasertsuwan, the brother of a sitting Chart Thai Pattana MP and a former MP himself, to run in Supanburi under their banner. 

The reports sent Chart Thai Pattana into overdrive. Varawut took time off from his ministerial duties to campaign in Supanburi. The party’s social media said that “there are reports that a certain party is hoping to bring an MP’s relatives to penetrate Supanburi.” Defiantly, the post proclaimed, “this election will show that the people of Supanburi loves the Silpa-archas and Chart Thai Pattana with an overwhelming victory!” 

This anecdote is emblematic of the election in Thailand. Even as we focus on the national policies being presented, even as the horse race coverage looks at which party leader is up and which is down, we must not forget that in the end, there remains a golden rule: all politics is local. The Silpa-archas may be one of the most famous of the local dynasties that preside over their provinces like personal fiefdoms. Few of these, after all, produce a prime minister with immense capacity for patronage. But these local kingpins from what Thais call the baan yai — “big houses” — play a key role in determining election results up and down the country.

At the 2019 general election, a number of “big house” upsets happened — what Thais call “toppling an elephant.” For example, among the elephants that were toppled include Itiphol Khunpluem, whose family is considered a powerhouse in Chonburi, losing to Future Forward. 

But this does not mean that the baan yai have diminished in influence. To the contrary: the parties know the utility of the big houses, hence why Ruam Thai Sang Chat, Palang Pracharath and Pheu Thai, among others, have been vigorously bidding for the support of big houses all over the country. Itiphol Khunpluem himself is a case in point: he recently caused waves by refusing to go with the rest of the Khunpluem clan to Pheu Thai, which defected from Palang Pracharath, choosing instead to ally himself with Prayut. All of this ensures that Chonburi will be a battleground province. 

An urban observer, where big houses wield less sway, may focus on, say, Prawit Wongsuwan’s poor polling and dismiss him as a lost cause. But the truth of the matter is that Palang Pracharath is still a powerful organization, who still commands the allegiance of several of the local political machines that reliably delivers votes. With the help of several of these families — the Khunpluems, the Asavahems of Samut Prakan, the Thienthongs of Sakaew, the Thepsuthins of Sukhothai — the brand-new party won the popular vote in 2019. It is not a feat likely to be repeated, but one underestimates the baan yai at their peril. 

Even as Bangkok-based voter may much prefer someone like Varawut to be espousing his environmental policies rather than campaigning solely on Supanburi-centric visions, it is undeniable that the local touch still wins votes.

But whether or not the baan yai strategy is truly more valuable than nationwide appeal is also about to get an interesting empirical test. Take the other offspring of the Chart Thai Party is the Chart Pattana Party, which recently rebranded itself to Chart Pattana Kla after merging with Korn Chatikavanij’s Kla Party. It identifies not with Banharn but with Chatichai Choonhavan, who hailed from Nakhon Ratchasima and provided Chart Pattana with its strong local roots. The party has suffered sharply declining popularity, however, even in its stronghold; in 2019, it won only one seat in Nakhon Ratchasima (its only constituency.)

This time around, Chart Pattana Kla is pursuing a twin election strategy. The first is the classic baan yai strategy: it has announced that it will be running Tewan Liptapanlop the party’s secretary general and younger brother of party chairman Suwat Liptapanlop, in Nakhon Ratchasima. Such a big name should maximize the party’s chances of reclaiming its local strength. 

At the same time, its merger with Kla has allowed the party to pursue a much more nationwide appeal, eyeing seats in provinces where Chart Pattana previously had no reach. For example, with its eye to voters in Bangkok and other vital economic areas, the party has campaigned on a 7-pronged strategy to raise 5 trillion baht in national income — a policy that appears designed to target former Democrats.  

Whether the party has more success with its baan yai strategy or its technocratic appeal will help shine some light, at least, on whether in Thailand all politics is truly local. 


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