Further reflections on the 14 May election and the changing nature of the urban-rural divide

  • The 14 May election resulted in a landslide victory for parties formerly in the opposition. Move Forward and PheuThai candidates dominated party list selections.  Move Forward beat contenders in 45 provinces.  Phuea Thai also performed well but for the first time in its history, the party polled second place.
  • That the ‘big house’ was upstaged by a ‘new energy’ rival suggests that political clientelism has been reworked by emergence of the working class vote. The academics we interviewed say these structural changes, and the push for a welfare state, are the new political normal.    
  • They also note thatrural society is not what it used to be: farmers are not only entrepreneurs but increasingly active citizens who crave equality.

Following the 14 May 2023 election, an effort was made to form a democratic government under the popular Move Forward Party (MFP).   Together with opposition parties, their combined 312 seats were not enough to overcome the opposition of the senate, however.  Ultimately, MFP stepped aside to let Phuea Thai Party (PTP) form the government instead.  The latter ‘succeeded’ by reneging on a promise to refrain from inviting parties from the former military-backed government to join them.  The inclusion of Bhumjaithai Party, Palang Pracharath Party, and United Thai Nation Party won senate approval and a government was formed with PTP’s Srettha Thavisin becoming Prime Minister last 22 August.     

Although the election did not result in the formation of a Move Forward government, the results offer insight into the prevailing political mood of the country. 

Outright win for the former opposition parties

The 2023 general election saw 39,293,867 people, some 75.22% of the country’s 52 million eligible voters, caste their ballots.  According to Ithiporn Boonprakong, President of the Election Commission of Thailand (OECT) it was the largest turnout ever recorded by the commission, reflecting stepped up public participation and belief in the electoral process.

For the first time in its history, Phuea Thai failed to win

The successor of Thai Rak Thai and the People Power Party,  PTP failed to win the highest number of seats for the first time in its history.  Electoral victories of Thaksin Shinawatra-linked parties began on 20 January 2001 when Thai Rak Thai Party received 11.6 million votes, 40.64% of the total, and claimed 248 seats in parliament.  The Democrat Party led by Chuan Leekpai finished a distant second with 7.6 million votes, 26.58% of the total, and 128 seats. PTP was also a winner in 2019, securing 136 seats over Palang Pracharath’s 116, but the party received fewer supporting votes, 7.8 million to 8.4 million, because 6.3 million voters chose MFP’s precursor, the Future Forward Party.

Orange and red candidates took most of the party list seats while Move Forward triumphed in 45 provinces

Two maps comparing the result of the 2023 general election. The left shows the parties that won in each constituency, while the right shows the parties that won party list votes in each province. Orange is MFP. Red is PTP. Yellow is United Thai Nation Party and Golden is Prachachat Party. (Illustration from vote66.voicetv.co.th)

Party list results reflected the relative popularity of parties and prime ministerial candidates in the final round of electoral campaign.  Voting day made it clear that MFP and PTP,  former opposition parties, had the support of some 25 million people and would in all likelihood be forming a coalition government.    Although candidates from former coalition parties polled well in a number of constituencies, party list candidates from MFP and PTP upstaged many of them.

Speaking on Matichon TV’s YouTube channel Mi Ruang Ma Clear, Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, Assistant Professor and Lecturer at Faculty of Law, Thammasat University noted that MFP bested PTP’s party list performance, 14.4 million to 10.9 million votes. Although PTP candidates garnered some 3 million more votes than MFP did in elected constituencies, more people voted for MFP party lists. Prinya speculated that the outcome may have stemmed in part from a pre-election announcement made by Thaksin that he wanted to end his self-imposed political exile and return home.

Together, MFP and PTP received 25.3 million votes for their combined 292 candidates, in line with pre-election estimates. The MFP win was unexpected. In the end, it proved to be an empty victory, however, as MFP prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat’s effort to build an eight party coalition was blocked in parliament by the senate.

Prinya attributed MFP’s win to the party list system. Considering each province separately, he noted that MFP party lists ranked first in 45, better than half of country, and second in another 32.  He also noted that within the 45, there were some in which MFP failed to win a single constituency and 21 in which the party did not have a representative. And as for the 32 province where the party ran second, there were another 28 in which MFP did not field a single constituency candidate.   

‘Big house’ vs ‘New energy’

Examples include Buriram, home base of the Bhumjaithai Party, Uthai Thani, the home province of Bhumjaithai’s leader Chada Thaiset, Suphan Buri, Chartthaipattana Party’s home base, and provinces like Chainat, Ratchaburi, and Petchaburi where Palang Pracharath Party and United Thai Nation Party candidates were elected but MFP won with party lists.   

A comparison of constituency (left) and party list (right) results in Chainat, Supanburi, Ratchaburi, Ayutthaya, Petchaburi, Nakhon Pathom, and Buriram.

As Parinya explained, proportional representation made it possible for MFP to penetrate ‘big house’ provinces, the traditional strongholds of long-standing political factions in rural areas.

 

Another ‘big house’ shake up occurred in the Eastern region. In Chonburi, seat of the infamous Khunpluem clan, MFP won 7 out of 10 constituency seats, the other 3 going to Palang Pracharath, Phuea Thai and United Thai Nation respectively. MFP party lists also led in all areas, edging out other influential figures like former Minister of Ministry of Labour Suchart Chomklin.

Social media users might well have been surmised the outcome. In the run-up to the election, mainstream media tended to focus on the region’s traditional political heavies.  But on social media, MFP was running hot to viral on platforms ranging from TikTok and Facebook to Twitter - a reflection of the party’s appeal to young people in the work force.

The political shift began earlier in the general election of 2019 when MFP’s precursor, the Future Forward Party, won 3 out of 8 area constituencies and received 217,941 votes, second only to Palang Pracharath’s 300,329.   

Long a bastion for big house” politicos and influential figures in the former government, Chonburi city is also home to a large population of working-class youth, people whose support for MFP provided the party with powerful online content. Pictures of these natural election canvassers” - crowds of young people cheering MFP party leader Pita’s speeches on 3 May 2023 at a Bang Saen beachfront and in the Si Racha district - appealed to workers in this industrial area, won by Future Forward Party in 2019 and retained by MFP in 2023.       


An MFP election campaign event in Si Racha on 30 April 2023. (Photo from Sahaswat Khumkong)

The demise of old-school political patronage networks?
 

In a 16 May 2023 interview for the Nation’s Kom Chad Luek program, Olarn Thinbangtieo, a lecturer in Political Science at Burapha University, expressed that view that young, working class voters no longer believe that their needs are being met by ‘big house’ politicians and their ‘pork barrel’ giveaways. Instead, they understand that their lives and their children’s futures are shaped by structural conditions long ignored by traditional political elites: debt loads, employment opportunities, and social welfare benefits. 

And now, they are looking to politicians who offer inclusive policies that can address their specific economic and social circumstances, policies that can provide them with long-term security.

An illustration showing the density of industrial estate area in Thailand from the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT)

Working class mobilisation and normalisation of the welfare state
 

In an interview with Prachatai last June, Sustarum Thammaboosadee, an academic with the Center for Welfare State Studies at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Thammasat University, explained that MFP polled particularly well in industrial districts with large populations of workers, people who pay into and hope to benefit from social welfare.

He disagrees that MFP is the vehicle for the new middle class.

“It’s the party of labour. Whatever its intentions, it has come to be seen as the party of the working class … and from now on, [discussions of] the welfare state will be a new normal in Thai society.  This is no longer the stuff of dreams … or ideologues.”

 Sustarum believes the welfare state is linked to democracy, in that both are about promoting equality and human rights. In his view, the idea has gained acceptance here.  He adds that it remains to be seen if one can be successfully developed here.

Rural change: farmersasentrepreneursand active citizens seeking equality

MFP not only performed well in industrial urban settings but also in rural areas, surprising many who assumed that they lacked the necessary political networks to beat big house politicians on their home turfs. Last June, Prachatai asked Attajak Sattayanurak, a professor and lecturer of history in the Faculty of Humanities at Chiang Mai University, for his reflections on this. Attajak recently published Moving up in the world: from farmers to entrepreneur, a book analysing changes in rural society.  He argues that the political hierarchies of the past no longer work, that farmers have become increasingly active citizens and now desire equality. 

Voters are looking for state authorities to pursue policies that can help them to escape oppression and make real improvements in their lives.  Attajak believes that MFP offered them hope by promising to create a new regime of dignitybased on equality, a shift away from old-style patron-clientage. 

According to Attajak, people in rural areas have increasingly come to see themselves as entrepreneurs. They have also become more active in their localities, calling upon Tambon Administrative Organisations (TAO) to do more in their respective communities.

He attributes these changes to economic policies implemented in the past by PTP governments to create new business opportunities in rural settings.  Voters - not just people in middle and lower-middle income brackets but also large numbers of low income earners - began to think in new ways, realising that upward mobility was possible, provided barriers were removed and they were given an opportunity. 

He thinks that people were attracted by what MFP represented - a change in the structure of relations between the state and the electorate on multiple fronts, from ending conscription and state alcohol monopolies to promoting and protecting gender equality.

Attajak notes that Pita and his MFP party members also moved beyond economic issues and universal healthcare to stress the importance of social equity because the 30 baht health care scheme is no longer open for debate.  He believes that it must be retained by whoever comes to power; people around the country expect welfare support for public health.

He also thinks that rural people started to feel that Move Forward was the key that could help them to escape traditional arrangements and gain access to what urban dwellers already have.

Finally, he explained that the 2011 general election results under the winner-take-all system created the false impression that Bangkok belonged to the Democrat Party because it captured 23 districts to PTP’s 10.  He noted that when looking at the votes, the Democrat Party only received 1.277 million votes, 44.64%, while PTP ran a close second with 1.209 million votes or 42.26% - figures which don’t include all of the labourers and other people who dont have house registrations in Bangkok, an estimated 50% of the total population.

Party work, trends, and policies: switching off the three ‘Bigs’

Chiang Mai was long dominated by PTP.  That ended last 14 May, when MFP candidates won in 7 out of 10 districts. PTP was left with only 2.  Nattakorn Wititanon from the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration at Chiang Mai University explained how remarkable the outcome was.   After its formation, PTP participated in five general elections.  They always won, only losing three seats to other parties during the course of five elections

An illustration of the result of the 14 May 2023 general election in northern provinces. Orange dots indicate where MFP candidates were elected on a constituency basis. 

Given the 2019 election results, Nattakorn said that he expected MFP to only poll well in urban districts. He admits that he was a little surprised by their ability capture rural districts like Chiang Dao and Fang in 2023.

He believes that the results were not just a Move Forward win but also, for a number of reasons, a Phuea Thai loss.  

“And not just in a single province but at the national level. Like Professor Prajak Kongkirati, just look at the Party Lists – Move Forward won 14 million votes in 43 provinces, more than half of the country, and came in first … and almost everywhere else Move Forward still came in second.” 

Nattakorn attributes the shift to a combination of factors, not the least of which was the campaign work undertaken by Move Forward and its forerunner, Future Forward Party.  He explained that the latter attracted the interests - and sympathies - of many voters who believed that it was unfairly treated.  Its charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was blocked by the court from entering parliament and his party was ordered to disband.  Its MPs were bought up, bribed and betrayed by members of their new parties.  The resulting level of public frustration with political developments proved fertile ground for MFP.

He also credits the efforts of individual Future Forward MPs for changing public perceptions of the parliament status quo.  He explains that most people previously assumed that real power was on the administrative side, with the council of ministers and PM as opposed to the parliament.  He believes that perceptions began to change when Future Forward made unprecedented use of parliamentary mechanisms to push forward progressive legislation - attempting to legalise same-sex marriage, deregulate the liquor industry, revise the constitution, and decentralise political power. The mechanisms would have worked but for the fact that the party did not have majority support in parliament..

Nattakorn further pointed out how they used commission, which previously looked like little more than an excuse for MPs to socialise over tea and coffee, to effectively inspect government work, not once but repeatedly.  He added that credit was also due to Pita, the charismatic leader of MFP, not just as an outspoken politician but as a public celebrity admired by people of diverse genders and age groups.  

At the end of the day, Nattakorn believes that MFP policies were the decisive factor. Many of their 300 policies were different from those of other parties.  And they had the confidence to promote them, speaking openly about sensitive issues that other parties were wary of discussing.    

Move Forward’s election campaign openly championed a range of progressive issues: ‘switching off the 3 Bigs’ (a reference to removing former coup makers from political power; abolishing military conscription; enforcing anti-monopoly legislation; and electing provincial governors to name a few.  Although Phuea Thai  had similar policies … they did not publicise them … they avoided talking about them … and concentrated instead on economic matters.  Move Forward also talked economic issues but they also had these other policies … which gave them more appeal.

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