Of cannabis and creeds: the rise of the Bhumjaithai Party

In November 2017, amidst the political drought of long military rule, Reuters ran an article on Anutin Charnvirakul, leader of the Bhumjaithai Party.

Many, it reported, were now speculating that he could possibly be the next prime minister. Anutin, for his part, did nothing to play down expectations, telling Reuters: “I have never been closer to the doorstep of Government House.” 

Ambitious, perhaps, but not too farfetched of a claim. The new constitution’s formula for calculating parliamentary seats meant that no party was likely to win an outright majority in parliament, and a medium-sized party dealt a particularly good hand could indeed have won the ultimate prize. There was a historical precedent in Kukrit Pramoj who, in the 1970s, managed to become prime minister despite winning only 18 seats in parliament. 

It didn’t quite work out that way, but Anutin wasn’t too far off either. Bhumjaithai performed well in the elections, claiming 10 per cent of the popular vote and 51 seats, a 22-seat gain from 2011.

After a very public show of dithering, Bhumjaithai announced it would join the Palang Pracharath coalition — ensuring that the government had a majority in the Lower House — and thus Anutin won for himself the post of deputy prime minister and public health minister. The party also secured the Transport Ministry and a deputy agricultural minister post.

This is not to say that Bhumjaithai only recently became influential. The party is no newcomer to the role of kingmaker. Under the leadership of Newin Chidchob, it was instrumental in propelling Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat Party to government. 

But it is also undeniable that Bhumjaithai is experiencing a golden age. It is now the second-largest party in the government coalition after nine defections from the dissolved Future Forward Party increased its seats in parliament to 61. 

The party’s success is all the more remarkable given that Bhumjaithai does not seem to have the makings of what would make it a successful party. But it somehow managed to convert several of its weaknesses into strengths. 

Bhumjaithai did not run a particularly serious election campaign. Its signature policy was marijuana legalisation for medical purposes; a household would be permitted to grow six plants, which would generate — wait for it — 420,000 baht in revenue.

Yet such simplicity (and, in conservative Thailand, audacity) proved to be marketing brilliance. Where ordinary people would have struggled to name the policy pledges of the other parties, everyone remembered that Bhumjaithai was the “weed party.”

Bhumjaithai reaped the benefits of recognition. The election saw Bhumjaithai secure new seats across multiple regions, despite its patronage having been historically concentrated in Buriram province. 

The weed promise also gave Bhumjaithai an easy benchmark with which to show that it was able to achieve its goals. Where both Palang Pracharath and the Democrats have been pummelled for their inability to fulfil the myriad of policy promises they made, Bhumjaithai’s marijuana project has made quick advances. The first government marijuana clinic has been opened, and in December, the party announced that it was working with the Ministry of Justice to decriminalise marijuana and kratom.

Post-election, the party has also benefitted from its lack of ideological stance. 

Bhumjaithai, like a number of other regionally-based parties, does not have much of a political creed.

Its official rallying cry is decentralization, but one can be forgiven for wondering when the last time Bhumjaithai advanced a policy towards that goal was. 

Its ideological flexibility has, however, allowed it maximum room for maneuver. It allowed the party to join the government and now it is becoming a destination for Future Forward MPs looking for a new home.

For many MPs seeking to join the government coalition, the party will seem like a preferable destination to Palang Pracharath (too tainted by its military affiliation), the Democrats (too divided internally, a problem exacerbated by weak leadership) or the other smaller parties (too little influence in the coalition). 

Amid this success, Anutin was hailed in October as a possible prime minister in waiting. Yet this optimism may be unfounded as Bhumjaithai has a number of warning signs in its wake.

Take Kittichai Reungsawat, a Future Forward MP who is applying to join Bhumjaithai. He explained in a Facebook post that he was seeking a party that would allow him to maximise his bargaining power in favour of his province, Chachoengsao. The comments were promptly flooded with fierce criticism and bitter disappointment. 

It shows that both Bhumjaithai’s decision to join the government coalition (which cemented Palang Pracharath’s hold on power) and poaching of Future Forward MPs has done much to alienate those in the anti-Prayut camp.

The Democrats, attempting to straddle the center, became the victims of deepening polarisation in the last election, and Bhumjaithai may eventually find themselves in similar circumstances. 

This was succinctly summarised by former Future Forward Party Secretary-General Piyabutr Saengkanokkul who told his MPs: “I sincerely hope that you chose a new party based on ideology, but what kind of ideology would lead you to Bhumjaithai?” 

The party is also facing new competition on its home turf of ideologically flexible parties: the new Kla (“Brave”) party, founded by former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij.

In the great tradition of Thai political parties positioning themselves for government, Kla has declared they seek only to work pragmatically to solve problems. 

Given Korn’s high name recognition and technocratic credentials, voters not keen on either side of the political aisle may opt for Kla instead of Bhumjaithai in the next election. 

Finally, Anutin himself has come under attack for the government’s response to the coronavirus.

His xenophobic outburst against foreigners, in particular, was widely panned. Where Anutin’s public image was previously crafted to show a savvy businessman who got things done in government, the coronavirus crisis made him seem out of his depth. 

Thus while Bhumjaithai may have gotten itself through the doorstep of Government House, it would not be entirely surprising that this is the closest that Anutin gets to the prime minister’s chair. 

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