Opposition parties continue to poll well two weeks out from Thailand’s general election, with a new national opinion survey predicting that the two largest opposition parties command the support of more than 60 percent of the electorate.
The latest Suan Dusit Poll, released on Saturday, showed that the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), a party associated with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was in pole position ahead of the May 14 vote, with the backing of 41.37 percent of respondents. In second place was the Move Forward Party (MFP), another more progressive opposition party led by Pita Limjaroenrat, with 19.32 percent.
The poll, which surveyed roughly 162,000 eligible voters between April 10 and 20, was a lot more extensive than two other recent polls by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) and the local media outlets Matichon and Daily News, the results of which I covered last month. But it largely reinforces their main findings: that the opposition parties are likely to perform well at this month’s election.
In some ways the results of the poll are unsurprising. Parties associated with Thaksin have prevailed in every election since the 2001 landslide election win that first bore the billionaire telecoms magnate to power. Under the leadership of Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who will soon be back on the campaign trail after giving birth this week, it is clear that the party continues to command considerable support across the north and northeast of the country, where Thaksin became massively popular by giving millions of poor Thais access to subsidies and cheap healthcare. (Indeed, most parties are campaigning this year on populist platforms of a distinctively Thaksinite hue.)
On top of this, there is division and disarray on the conservative side of politics. In January, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led a military coup in 2014, defected from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which helped put him in the top post after the 2019 election, and joined the newly formed United Thai Nation Party (UTNP), leaving the PPRP in under the leadership of his comrade-turned-rival Prawit Wongsuwan.
The Suan Dusit Poll predicts bad tidings for both parties. The UTNP commanded the support of only 8.48 percent of respondents, while the PPRP came in with 7.49 percent. The best performing conservative party was Bhumjaithai, the party led by current Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, which was the preferred choice of 9.55 percent.
Should the PTP win, however, it is far from clear that its preferred candidate will head the next government – such are the undemocratic peculiarities of the current Thai Constitution. Approved under a military administration in 2017, the constitution created a 250-member Senate, appointed entirely by the military, which will join with the 500 newly elected members of lower house to choose the country’s next prime minister.
Given its institutional coloration (appointed by the military), it is likely that the Senate would block the nomination of a Shinawatra as prime minister. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that its creation was specifically designed to keep Thaksin and his proxies out of power.
Accordingly, the upcoming election is likely to give way to another replay of the bimodal conflict that has underpinned 21st century Thai politics, between the forces associated with Thaksin and those of the conservative royalist elites that viewed his rampant popularity as a threat to their wealth and power – even to the hallowed Thai monarchy itself.
Since 2001, the military has forcibly removed two Shinawatras from power – Thaksin himself in 2006, and his sister Yingluck in 2014 – and courts have dismissed other Thaksinite governments on sometimes absurdly threadbare pretexts. In some ways, the constitution is intended to make another coup unnecessary, but creating a structural impediment to Thaksin’s reemergence as a political force.
As a result of this structural impediment, the number of seats that the PTP – or any opposition party – needs to win if wants to guarantee itself the right to form government is not a simple plurality of 251 but a supermajority of 376, which would enable it to overcome the Senate’s veto.
While this would appear to be out of Pheu Thai’s reach on its own – even the party’s own probably overoptimistic projection is 310 seats – surveys like the Suan Dusit Poll suggest that anti-establishment parties as a whole might be able to reach this threshold.
Probably the most likely route to power for the PTP is to join forces and form a coalition with the MFP and other parties, perhaps even from the conservative camp. While there has been some talk about the MFP, a relatively new party with a more radical critique of the role of the military and monarchy in Thai politics, taking votes from Pheu Thai, the Suan Dusit Poll suggests that the two parties electoral strengths are complementary. PTP scored most highly among those aged above 51 (44.92 percent) and in the 30-51 age group (44.59 percent). MFP, on the other hand, won the 18-30 age group convincingly, with 50.2 percent of respondents in that category.
Provided they could shelve their differences, the two parties could form the nucleus of a new government and end the direct hold that the military has had on Thai politics since 2014. As always, however, the closer that opposition forces get to posing an existential threat to the Thai establishment, the more likely it is that this establishment and its guardians will resort to undemocratic means to wrest back control. “If Pheu Thai returns,” Gregory Raymond of the Australian National University wrote this week, “then the seeds for the next coup, either military or judicial, may have already been sown.” And so the wheel continues to turn.