A Role Reversal for Bangkok’s Middle Class

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A Role Reversal for Bangkok’s Middle Class

Residents of Thailand’s capital have historically come down on the side of conservatism and reaction. They now loom as a force for reform.

A Role Reversal for Bangkok’s Middle Class

Supporters of the Move Forward Party hold a portrait of Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Move Forward Party, during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, July 29, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/ Sakchai Lalit

Thailand has a long history of rural and peripheral citizens concentrated in the country’s north and northeast voting into government political parties and politicians, only for these later to be removed by the conservative royalist establishment with the support of the large Bangkok middle class.

Thaksin Shinawatra and his political parties won every Thai election from 2001 until 2019, and much of the royalist Bangkok middle class operated in lockstep with the establishment in efforts to prevent his parties from governing the country. Anti-Thaksin protests provided the societal support base that helped legitimize the establishment-backed coups that removed Thaksin in 2006 and then his political proxy and younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014. The latter coup was led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who ruled the country for the next nine years but in July announced his retirement from politics following an election on May 14 in which military-linked political parties were soundly defeated at the polls.

The results of the May election marked a significant turning point for the Bangkok middle class –one with explosive political potential. For the first time in nearly two decades, Bangkokians overwhelmingly voted for the election winner. The Move Forward Party (MFP), an ultra-progressive political newcomer, edged out Pheu Thai nationally and in Bangkok captured a whopping 32 out of the capital’s 33 seats. Significantly, it did so on a campaign platform that would have turned middle-class heads a decade ago, pledging to introduce reforms that would curtail military and, more controversially, monarchical prerogatives.

The voting results sent a clear signal that the Bangkok middle class can no longer be relied upon to support the royal establishment. As a result, the establishment no longer faces a threat only from the periphery, but also from the more influential center.

That new threat’s potential has only escalated in the wake of the election’s odd aftermath. Although Pheu Thai had initially formed an alliance with Move Forward and voted for its prime minister candidate, 42-year-old Harvard graduate Pita Limjaroenrat, the military appointed Senate blocked Pita’s bid in a parliamentary session in July, fueling anti-establishment sentiments among the middle class.

Pheu Thai then turned on the MFP and formed a coalition with pro-military establishment parties tied to Prayut and his powerful former deputy, General Prawit Wongsuwan. The Senate, by and large considered an enemy of Pheu Thai in the past, overwhelmingly voted for Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate Srettha Thavisin on August 22.

Earlier that same day, Thaksin shocked Thailand by returning home after some 15 years of living as a fugitive in self-imposed exile, giving credence to widespread rumors that the 74-year-old cut a deal with establishment elements. It was believed that in exchange for his return home without serving jailtime for corruption and abuse of power convictions, Pheu Thai could govern the country so long as they do not agitate the powers-that-be. On September 1, King Vajiralongkorn granted Thaksin a partial royal pardon by reducing his prison term from eight years to one, and a former deputy prime minister under Prayut has since declared that is possible that the sentence could be cut even further.

Thaksin remains loathed by most Bangkokians who hail from the elite and middle classes. In the past, most of these Bangkokians viewed Thaksin as a brash politician who sought to undermine the establishment not because of democratic principles but merely for personal financial gain. Yet more recently, those views have gradually been superseded by ones held by younger middle-class Thais, who have observed Thaksin’s recent efforts to cozy up to the establishment. That includes Pheu Thai’s unwillingness to support the MFP’s bid to reform the controversial lese majeste law, which criminalizes criticisms of the monarchy, and its reneging on campaign promises that it would never join hands with military-backed political parties. The latter in particular broke the hearts of many of older, longtime Thaksin supporters, who have long desired the military’s removal from politics.

Since Srettha’s election, the 61-year-old real estate tycoon and Thaksin ally has taken pains to demonstrate his subservience to the establishment. In spite of campaign promises to reform the powerful military, he has toned down his rhetoric by replacing the word “reform” with “co-develop.” He also provoked supporters of the MFP when photos of a congratulatory dinner involving Srettha and some of Thailand’s wealthiest businessmen were posted on social media. One campaign promise of Move Forward was to break up some of the country’s business monopolies, including in the energy and alcohol sectors, which have profited enormously under Prayut’s rule while the rest of the country, including the middle class, have suffered financial setbacks.

Steps Away from Royalism

Pheu Thai’s return to power comes on the heels of a shift in Bangkok, and especially among its upper and middle classes, from royalism to reformism. It is a process that has coincided with the reign of King Vajiralongkorn, who in December 2016 took over the throne from his late father, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Bhumibol was widely respected, even revered, by the middle classes. But, somewhat similar to Thaksin, the old elite network that surrounded Bhumibol, as well as its middle-class allies, did not much like Vajiralongkorn. They were even concerned that Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn, long rumored to have more cordial ties with Thaksin than did Bhumibol’s network, could collaborate and plot out a scenario that would undermine their interests. So when Vajiralongkorn replaced his father, there was perhaps some latent potential for the Bangkok middle class to shift away from royalism and instead become advocates for progressive, democratic change.

A move in this direction began in 2017. Monuments commemorating the country’s 1932 democratic revolution began to mysteriously disappear, and prostration during the playing of the national anthem at schools was reintroduced despite being banned more than 150 years ago. Later, laws were changed that gave the King full control over the monarchy’s Crown Property Bureau. This all signaled to many Thais that there was an effort to erase the country’s democratic history and elevate the power of the monarchy, which provoked even moderate royalists. Most especially, the move alienated young urbanites and liberal intellectuals who desired a more democratic state but were deeply critical of Thaksin and Pheu Thai.

Prior to Vajiralongkorn taking over the throne, however, Bangkokians were still by and large reluctant to embrace representative democracy. In August 2016, just months before Bhumibol’s passing in October, a referendum was held by the military government led by Prayut for a new constitution that would ostensibly put the country back on a democratic path. Bangkokians overwhelmingly endorsed it, though critics, including Thaksin supporters, pointed to the appointed Senate as an example of the establishment’s intention to ensure that it stayed in power indefinitely. At the time, that meant keeping Thaksin and Pheu Thai at bay.

By the time of the next election in March 2019, however, Bangkok’s social transformation was well underway. Youthful establishment critics such as firebrand Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit emboldened young middle-class Thais by boldly criticizing the Prayut-led junta and calling for the reform of both the military and monarchy. In the election, Thanathorn’s upstart Future Forward Party, the precursor to Move Forward, advanced a platform of democracy, decentralization, and demilitarization. In doing so, the party galvanized particular support among young urbanites who were affronted by anachronistic royalism, inept governance, and harsh crackdowns on dissent under Prayut. Students from Bangkok’s elite universities, in the past either royalists or, at minimum, anti-Thaksin, had widely become the most outspoken critics of not only the junta but also the monarchy.

In spite of Future Forward’s growing popularity among young elite and middle class Bangkokians, it was unable to even capture a third of the parliamentary seats in the capital in the election. In fact, the Prayut-backed Palang Pracharath Party won more seats in Bangkok, underscoring the divisions between older generation royalists and young progressives.

But when the Future Forward Party was dissolved by establishment-backed courts on flimsy charges in February 2020, it set off a wave of large-scale protests calling for reforms. Students from Thammasat University created a 10-point list of demands that called for the revocation of the lese majeste provision, the curtailment of the monarchy’s budget, and reforms to prevent the palace from intervening in politics. The dissolution of Future Forward was intended to destroy the burgeoning youth-led pro-democracy movement, but in effect it only deepened anti-establishment sentiments among critics and even expanded the desire for democratic reforms across all parts of Thai society, most significantly in the capital.

Indeed, by the time of the general election in May of this year, pro-reform dispositions in Bangkok had swelled. The so-called “generational divide” between older Thais and younger ones – always much more applicable to Bangkok and other sections of society where royalism was dominant and Thaksin was disliked, including Bangkok, the central region, and the upper south, than in Thaksin strongholds such as the northeast and north – was not nearly as relevant. Move Forward’s domination in Bangkok showed that support for progressive change had morphed and started to include many middle-aged, even older, Thais.

A Two-Pronged Threat

The new Pheu Thai-led coalition, sworn in by the palace on September 2, may be the most despised incoming government in the eyes of Bangkokians in recent history. Featuring military-backed parties whose legitimacy has plummeted dramatically and now with a Pheu Thai prime minister, the grievances of both middle-class progressives and the remaining (but still influential) conservatives may be set to intensify.

Most political onlookers believe it is a foregone conclusion that Move Forward will be dissolved in the coming months or by early next year by establishment-backed courts, which means the trigger for protests will occur under Srettha and Pheu Thai’s watch. Some Thai security insiders predict that there will be a subsequent backlash that will significantly trump those earlier youth-led protests of early 2020 following Future Forward’s ban. At that time, protesters had to contend with not only the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the Prayut government’s strict pandemic restrictions.

Opinion polls have shown that if the election were held today, Move Forward would totally demolish its competitors while Pheu Thai would experience what has happened to Bangkok’s preferred party of the past, the Democrats. Thailand’s oldest party has faded from political relevance by remaining staunchly conservative and failing to appeal to the ever-expanding pro-reform sentiments in Bangkok. With older Bangkokians’ longtime political nemesis Pheu Thai now the face of a new government that enjoys establishment backing (at least for now), support for change may both intensify and spread even among older Bangkokian elite and middle-class conservatives. Indeed, in spite of the apparent mending of the fences between the establishment and Pheu Thai, older conservatives are generally peeved with the new government and the pardon granted to Thaksin.

These Bangkokians have long viewed Thaksin and Pheu Thai as opportunistic, and such perceptions have only been reconfirmed in light of Thaksin’s historic return and his party’s compact with the royalist establishment. But the shift of the capital’s middle class from royalist anti-Thaksinism to now possibly pro-democracy anti-Thaksinism underscores its own fluid and opportunistic relationship with democracy. Where they stood to oppose electoral results when Thaksin and Pheu Thai won elections, they now seek to curtail authoritarian power. That’s because their political party of choice was sidelined by an establishment that now includes their long-time rival. And if Thaksin soon walks free from prison, as is widely expected, anti-government, pro-reform sentiments will intensify significantly among the middle class.