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July 10, 2020

THAILAND: Past is future, or Thailand’s return to the pre-Thaksin era

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 6 mins)
  • With the recent political changes, Thailand continues its move back to the fragmented party politics of the 1990s.
  • As economic czar Somkid Jatusripitak’s frustrations have revealed, coordination difficulties abound in the current government, which could reduce its ability to respond to an urgent economic crisis or implement difficult reforms.
  • The main difference from the 1990s, however, is the willingness of the military to act to forestall any social or political challenge to the current system.

In the 2005 elections, the Thais Love Thais (TRT) party, led by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, won 61% of the seats in parliament, the first time since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 that a single party formed the government. After the September 2006 coup, the Constitutional Court ordered TRT dissolved, but the party’s successors – all seen as representing Thaksin – still won enough seats to form the governments after the 2007 and 2011 elections, confirming the strength of his popular support and electoral brand. In fact, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha believed that the military government that took over after the 2006 coup mistakenly allowed a return to democracy without first crippling Thaksin’s political machinery. Thus, from 2014 to 2019, the junta led by Prayuth focused on both weakening the popular movement that backed him, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, by suppressing its ability to organize in the countryside, and poaching Thaksin’s top political allies.

In preparation for the 2019 elections, Prayuth recruited the group known as Sam Mitr (Three Friends), led by politicians who were among Thaksin’s top aides during TRT’s peak. This included Thaksin Transport Minister Suriya Juangroongruangkit and former Industry Minister Somsak Theksputin. But the highest profile of the three was Somkid Jatusripitak, who is credited with having devised “Thaksinomics,” the populist spending program that made Thaksin’s legend as the champion of farmers and the marginalized in the north and northeast. Since 2015, Somkid had been the economic czar of the junta. Sam Mitr brought over roughly 70 politicians, of whom 60 would become MPs after the elections, and many were former members of the For Thais (Puea Thai, PT) party that was still associated with Thaksin.

Possibly showing how years of attacks had debilitated its ranks, PT won only 27% of the seats in 2019, 20 percentage points lower than the 48% that the party had in 2007 and 2011. That Thaksin had been out of the country 13 years may have also contributed to the party’s weakness. The surprise performer was the Future Forward Party, which won 16% of the seats, represented by its charismatic leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. PPRP had 119 (23%) of the seats in parliament, the lowest percentage by a coalition’s leading party since the Thai Nation Party of Prime Minister Banhard Silpa-Archa in 1995. Prayuth was elected prime minister by a parliamentary coalition composed of 17 parties (several of which were single-seat parties).

As the chart below shows, the ruling coalition is now composed of middle-sized parties, resulting in a return to the fragmentation of the 1990s.

THAILAND: Past is future, or Thailand’s return to the pre-Thaksin era 1

Political fragmentation and its consequences

Not only is the ruling coalition the product of the most parties in recent Thai history, but Sam Mitr is itself is composed of at least six different cliques, from former PT politicians to representatives of entrenched political families.

Prayuth therefore presides over a level of political fragmentation worse than that of the 1990s, before Thaksin, when governments relied on highly factionalized coalitions composed of multiple parties, all looking to maximize the benefits from patronage politics. The dynamics of this were best represented by the political maneuvering of the past two months to replace Somkid’s allies with politicians allied with Sam Mitr. After all, since Sam Mitr accounts for about half of PPRP’s seats, it practically has veto power not only within the party but the government coalition itself. Bhumjaithai, the second largest party in the coalition, only has 61 MPs.

On the surface, the reason Sam Mitr pushed for a reorganization within PRPP was the need for better coordination to implement economic policies that where needed to respond to the pandemic, as the desire to protect their respective political turfs seemed to have limited Somkid’s influence with the other parties. But the speculation is that Sam Mitr want to have a bigger say in the massive stimulus being implemented this year, which provides the basis for political patronage — the so-called “buffet cabinet” – to not only protect its current position but to pull in Democrats and PT members.

Thailand does not yet face similar circumstances as in the 1990s, but the high level of fragmentation within the coalition, and even within PPRP, means that the government’s ability to act quickly and decisively is questionable during a crisi whenever the interests of any significant faction are affected. The situation also makes it difficult for the government to allocate resources or pursue reforms in a way that would negatively affect any of the major groups in the ruling coalition. For instance, in the 1990s, it was the high level of political fragmentation that allowed the medium-sized party Chart Pattana to veto a plan in early 1997 by the Ministry of Finance to close almost a dozen problematic financial companies and banks, because its members had financial interests in some of them. The inability of the government to act led to the eventual collapse in confidence in its ability to deal with the financial crisis.

The main difference from two decades ago is that the military is willing to play a political role – including intervention – to ensure that political instability does not return to the country, which in its view is possible if a Thaksin-aligned government returns to power. With Prayuth, a civilian, the perceived conservative hawk in the army is now Apirat Kongsompong. However, Apirat will retire after the September reshuffle and his expected replacement is General Narongphan Jitkaewthae, the 1st Army Chief, who is very close to King Maha Vajiralongkorn and is also from the same arch-monarchist clique as Apirat (and therefore of the same predilection to protect the status quo). Narongphan will retire only in 2023, which assures military oversight of Thai politics for at least the next three years.

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