ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Factional Politics After Thailand’s Election: Survive or Decline

The Move Forward Party’s victory dealt a blow against the politics of patronage, but it may be too soon to write it off.

Factional Politics After Thailand’s Election: Survive or Decline

Supporters of Thailand’s Move Forward Party attend a post-election rally in Nonthaburi, Thailand, May 18, 2023.

Credit: Twitter/MFPThailand

On May 14, Thai voters delivered a surprise victory to the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP), despite expectations that Pheu Thai, another pro-democratic party, would win by a landslide. The MFP victory seems to have undermined the role of the old-style factional politics in Thailand. Factions that have dominated provinces for years lost seats to the MFP, and in some provinces, such as Rayong and Samut Prakan, they lost every seat.

Factions, known in Thai as ban yai, or “big house,” are temporary regional groupings among politicians and their support groups both within and outside their party organizations. Factions have been an important player in the Thai political arena for decades. Many political parties, including Thai Rak Thai in 1998, Pheu Thai in 2007, and the pro-military Palang Pracharath in 2019, were founded by inducing various factions to join the parties. Organizing parties along factional lines frequently led to vote-buying and allowed factions to develop at the expense of strong party organizations.

In this year’s election, factional politics again prevailed. Major parties competed with each other to attract powerful factions to their banners; this included Pheu Thai, Bhumjaithai, led by public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, and the military-backed United Thai Nation Party (UTNP), which had split from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and nominated Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as its candidate for prime minister. The more factions a party controls, the greater the chance it has to win seats in parliament. The 2023 election, however, surprised observers, as the progressive MFP took a stunning lead across the country and even defeated powerful factions in many provinces. Does this outcome spell the end of factions in Thai politics? Probably not.

This year, some factions lost the entire slate of seats in their province, while others lost some seats in constituencies that they have dominated for a long time. Among those who lost all of the seats in their provinces were the Pithuthecha family in Rayong, the Khumplum family in Chonburi, the Asavahem family in Samut Prakan, the Ruearang family in Nonthaburi, the Sasomsap faction in Nakhon Pathom, and the Nopphakham faction in Pathum Thani. In addition to this, many long-time MPs from the Pheu Thai Party lost their seats in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Lampang, which were once considered the party’s base. Unlike other regions, though, the MFP did not do well in the southern provinces apart from Phuket, where it won all the seats. Conservative parties successfully competed for seats in this region. However, the victory of MFP in Phuket marks a change to the political landscape in the south in which the youth-led party can secure seats in the region that has long been controlled by the conservative Democrat Party.

Although the MFP defeated many dominant factions in this election, this does not suggest the end of factional politics in Thailand. The two-ballot electoral system actually encourages the existence of factions. This system allows each voter to cast two ballots: one for a constituency candidate and one for a political party. This two-ballot system encourages voters to split their vote between the party list and district ballots. Voters can choose to support faction members in their district ballot, while allocating their party-list vote for an alternative party.  Vote-splitting will allow factions to remain central to future elections, as evidenced in many provinces where strong factions dominated constituency-level seats, such as in Kampangpetch, Phetchabun, Suratthani, and Buriram, where long-time factional members from the PPRP, UTNP, and Bhumjaithai won all of the available constituency seats. At the same time, the MFP won the largest number of votes in the party-list system in each of these provinces. Thus, this two-ballot system, factional politics will continue to survive and may actually find ways to adapt and thrive in the new political landscape.

Second, factional politics not only control national elections, but it also dominates local elections. This pattern of power allows factions to influence the provincial politics at all tiers. The caretaker role that they play in provinces fosters patronage relationships between voters and faction members. These patronage links give faction members the ability to control local politics from the district to provincial level, meaning they can also use these networks to influence and manage votes at national elections. In addition, factions can form their own vote canvasser teams. These teams professionally manage votes for their faction in the general elections. Political parties rely on these vote canvasser teams to pursue electoral victory.

Although many factions lost seats in this election, the phenomenon is likely to persist in Thai politics. As long as patronage relationships remain significant, especially at the local level, factions can maintain their close connection with voters. More importantly, many political parties in Thailand are poorly institutionalized and exist as ad hoc organizations only to compete in elections. Many were formed by attracting famous and powerful politicians, rather than building the party from the ground up. Parties thus need factions to support vote-seeking efforts. At the same time, factions consisting of professional politicians are flexible. They can switch between parties and adapt themselves to political changes in order to secure their political interests and survive.