ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

In Thailand, Local Elections See Stagnating Progressive Vote

The results of the recent provincial elections hint at the possibility that some of demands of Thai protesters may be a hard sell outside big cities.

In Thailand, Local Elections See Stagnating Progressive Vote

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the head of Thailand’s disbanded Future Forward party.

Credit: Flickr/World Economic Forum

On Sunday, Thai voters went to the polls for provincial elections, the country’s first electoral exercise since flawed national elections in 2019 that marked the end of five years of direct military rule.

The important local elections came amid a raft of large youth-led protests against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, which have featured taboo-breaking demands for the reform of the Thai monarchy.

The elections, which chose provincial administrative organizations (PAOs) in 76 provinces outside the capital Bangkok, were expected to provide a sense of whether the ongoing youth-led protests would translate into impact at the ballot box. On this count, the result was slightly disappointing, its most notable outcome being the failure of the Progressive Movement, the successor of the banned Future Forward party, to expand its pool of support.

The Progressive Movement sought the chief executive position of the PAOs in 42 provinces and ran more than 1,000 candidates for PAO member slots in 52 provinces. Unofficial results showed that the party managed to win just 55 seats in 18 provinces and no chief executive positions.

“I would like to use this opportunity to say sorry to the people that have supported us on the December 20 election,” the party’s leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit told the media the following day. He added: “We have worked hard and truly realize that even though there are many factors, but the most important factor why we have not won the in any province is because we have not worked hard enough, and we were not efficient enough.” Thanathorn vowed to continue to call for reform of the constitution, the military, and the monarchy.

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The Progressive Movement (sometimes also called Move Forward) is the successor of the Future Forward party, which was established in 2018 and, buoyed by strong support among young Thais, came in third place at national elections held the following year. In February 2020, the party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court on charges that Thanathorn lent his own money to the party in technical violation of the law. The banning of the party was an important spur to this year’s public protest movement, which has since broadened its demands out to include the highly sensitive question of reforms to the monarchy.

In the wake of the election, pro-monarchy commentators seized on the results as a sign that the protesters do not command wide support in Thai society. Warong Dechgitvigrom of the royalist group Thai Phakdee said in a Facebook post that the failure of the party showed the lack of support for groups challenging the monarchy. Pro-government commentator Pat Hemasuk declared that the Progressive Movement “will only win in one province: Twitterburi.”

But it may be hard to draw binding conclusions from the results. For one thing, the Progressive Movement won 17 percent of the popular vote, roughly on par with Future Forward’s performance (16.2 percent) at the 2019 general election.

For another, local politics in Thailand has long been dominated by local strongmen and political dynasties without clear national party loyalties, whose success is often determined by their ability to distribute favors and promises to local electorates. “Even as Thailand has advanced towards more ideologically-driven national conversations,” Ken Lohatepanont of the Thai Enquirer observed, “local elections remain driven as much as ever by machine politics.”

The victorious PAO chief candidates were therefore ideologically heterogeneous: they included some who had pledged their loyalty to Prayut’s government, some (such as in the northern city Chiang Mai) linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and some aligned to prominent local political families. This may say less about the failures of the Progressive Movement and its platform and more about the continuing gravity of local politics.

It is nevertheless disappointing that the Progressive Movement failed to ride the momentum of the recent protests in order to expand its share of the vote, especially after the party declared that its aim was to win in a landslide. This may indicate that the party has less purchase outside Bangkok and other large provincial cities where most protests have been concentrated.

It may also suggest that the more controversial demands of the protest movement – particularly its online mockery of monarchical prerogatives and brave calls for the institution’s reform – are a difficult sell in many parts of Thailand.

Indeed, the poor electoral showing is likely to play into the debates currently taking place within the pro-democracy camp, about how to balance ideological goals with the movement’s need to expand its base of support, a dilemma encapsulated by a key activist group’s recent appropriation of a controversial communist symbol.

While the pro-democracy Thai Enquirer said that calls for the reform of the monarchy have “intellectual merit,” it called on progressives to “realize that the majority of Thais have little stomach for a fight at a time when the economy has sunk and the country remains in emergency mode.”

Thanathorn hinted at this in his press conference on December 21, noting that the question of monarchical reform was “sensitive” for many Thais, but denied that the party’s views towards the monarchy affected the election results.

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All told, the results have given Thailand’s new political force much food for thought between now and the next general election.