In 2019, many voters previously loyal to Pheu Thai, the party of the polarising Shinawatra clan, repressed their inner feelings — and, wanting an end to the ‘colour wars’ between their so-called ‘red shirt’ supporters and ‘yellow shirt’ conservatives, voted with their heads. They were attracted by what they saw as stability in the form of the military proxy party Palang Pracharat and its prime ministerial candidate, coup leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha as well as the welfare payments his party then promised.
In 2023, divisive politics seem to have less prominence — at least on the surface. With return of the lese majeste law and the banning of talk of monarchical reform, the economy dominates election campaigning. Given the hard years of the COVID-19 pandemic-induced downturn over 2020–2022, the deep collective memory of Pheu Thai as the party of economic growth and wealth redistribution places it in a good position to return to government.
Pheu Thai’s electoral prospects are further strengthened by disarray on the conservative side. Prayuth is a tired lame duck prime minister, grumpy and short with the media and unwilling to debate. Worst of all, he possesses a horizon of only two years should he be re-elected due to a 2022 court decision on prime ministerial term limits. After an apparent split within the government, Prayut has formed a new party vehicle for himself and left Palang Pracharat to former partner and army factional comrade Prawit Wongsuwon, who is now a competitor for the prime ministership.
But there are many reasons why it is far too early to hand the election to Pheu Thai, despite its rhetoric around an election ‘landslide’. These factors make it difficult to predict who will be in government and importantly, who will be the next Thai prime minister.
The election system has changed since the 2019 election, with a return to a two-ballot system of separate votes for local constituencies and party-list candidates. This is expected to advantage bigger parties and disadvantage smaller ones, especially the liberal Move Forward — the successor to the break-out party of the 2019 election, Future Forward, that was banned in controversial circumstances in 2020. Also, Thai polls are often unreliable and the apparent support for Pheu Thai might be weaker than they suggest.
The unelected senate of 250 members, who under the 2017 constitution have their last chance to determine who will be prime minister in the 750-seat bicameral parliament, are an important variable. While their intentions are largely opaque, some have indicated that they will respect the voice of the people. More importantly, the split amongst the conservatives may mean the senators do not vote as a single bloc.
There is the tricky matter of coalitions. None of Pheu Thai’s leaders have ruled out going into coalition with Palang Prachrat, meaning that the clear distinction between the so-called ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’ sides of Thai politics that was present after the 2019 election may dissolve. This more fluid mix means that many other coalition permutations and combinations become possible. Choosing a prime minister may mean haggling as these alignments solidify. Smaller parties, like Bhumjai Thai, could become kingmakers.
Many parties have more than one candidate for prime minister at this point in the campaigning. While Paethongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is a Pheu Thai candidate with dynastic charisma, she is flanked by two older and more experienced candidates, so she is no sure thing. There are other known unknowns, such as the role of palace and the possibility of last minute ‘big surprises’, such as the announcement and subsequent cancellation of King Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister Princess Ubol Ratana as a prime ministerial candidate in 2019.
If Pheu Thai returns, then the seeds for the next coup, either military or judicial, may have already been sown. Pheu Thai’s populist promises — such as a 10,000 baht cash bonus (US$300) into a digital wallet for all adults — may offer the pretext for intervention, just like in 2014, when former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s poorly-designed scheme to buy rice from farmers well above market prices was framed as reckless economic irresponsibility. The possibility of Thaksin returning to Thailand could again inflame conservatives and provoke a return to the streets.
Deep social and regional cleavages remain in the Thai body politic, making Thai politics as uncertain as ever.
Greg Raymond is a Senior Lecturer at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.