By Joel Sawat Selway
Since 2001, residents of Thailand’s Upper North region have voted in large proportions for political parties aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra. While Thaksin was popular for his pro-poor economic policies, he was also popular in the Upper North as this was his home region. This connection to Thaksin could be described as ethnic in nature. The Upper North was only joined to Siam in 1899, previously ruled as an independent Kingdom known as Lanna. Indeed, the Upper North is sometimes referred to by this ethnonym, though others also exist.
In published work, I have written about this ethnic connection. Thaksin was pronounced by more than one fortune teller as the reincarnation of some ancient Lanna king, and Northern Red Shirt organizations took on an ethnic tone, including incorporating the Lanna script and pronouncing the protection of Lanna culture as one of their central aims. In three straight elections, Lanna went entirely red. Some Northern Thais viewed the party as their regional party in a similar way as Southern Thais (Paktay) regard the Democrat Party.
In the previous elections in 2019, Pheu Thai (PT) did not compete in Phrae—their alliance partner, the dissolved Thai Raksa Chart, was supposed to run there instead. There was also a green spot in Phayao by virtue of the military party’s Palang Pracharath (PPRP) victory with Pheu Thai defectee, Thammanat Phrompao. But most observers seemed to think those were temporary blips. The couple of seats Future Forward (now Move Forward, MFP) won in Chiangrai were also understandable given the nature of the electoral rules, designed to weaken Pheu Thai, and the less-than free and fair nature of the entire election.
Many thought 2023 would be back to normal—a “red-out” of the Upper North. Most polls predicted Pheu Thai would take well over 200 seats nationwide; only a single online survey made up of a voluntary sample (Daily News/Matichon) had MFP on top. Nobody imagined that the Upper North would fall so heavily to MFP. The connection between Pheu Thai and Lanna identity seems to have been broken. Move Forward not only improved on its vote, but absolutely devastated Pheu Thai in Thaksin’s home province, Chiangmai, and in the Shinawatra clan’s home constituency, San Kampaeng. Pheu Thai still came out with the most constituency seats overall in Lanna 17/35. But Move Forward captured 14 seats, including the four major towns/cities of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lamphun, and Lampang.
In a nationally-representative survey taken just before the election, I asked respondents from the Upper North to gauge the strength of their regional identity. I used a questions frequently included in European public opinion surveys that requires respondents to compare their regional identity to their national identity. Table 1 shows those results. As a caveat, I have not had the chance to compute weights for this survey—and I reserve the right to update this and come to a different conclusion in the future. However, as of now, 74.93% of respondents feel at least equally Lanna as they do Thai.
Table 1. Strength of Regional Identity, Lanna (Upper North)
Does the strength of Lanna identity correlate with who they voted for? Do Pheu Thai voters have stronger Lanna identities? Table 2 shows these averages. Pheu Thai supporters do indeed have the highest average on this measure, though only slightly. A difference of means test showed there to be no statistical difference in the means, however. Certainly, those who voted for conservative parties (Palang Pracharath and Ruam Thai Sang Chart) has much lower averages, as did supporters of other parties. Democrats had the same mean Lanna identity strength as Pheu Thai supporters, but there were only three respondents.
Table 2. Strength of Lanna identity by Party Preference (2023)
In short, there is no evidence that Pheu Thai supporters identify more strongly with the Lanna regional identity than Move Forward supporters. The Pheu Thai party’s connection to Upper North voters through regionalism seems to have dissipated. Other, more important issues have come to the fore. It feels like the dawn of a new political era in Lanna.