In Thailand’s north, opposition vies for votes in skewed system

Pheu Thai and MFP should be natural allies but an electoral system that gives the military outsized influence forces them into a ferocious fight for seats.

Pheu Thai supporters gather at a campaign rally in Chiang Mai
Opposition supporters in northern Thailand are eager for change [Andrew Nachemson/AL Jazeera]

Chiang Mai, Thailand – At a Move Forward Party campaign rally near Chiang Mai’s large Sunday night market on April 30, thousands gathered to hear party leaders and candidates speak, with cheers drifting over from nearby vendors.

“They always care about the people, the other side only cares about the monarchy and the rich,” said a man selling fried chicken.

Seen as Thailand’s most progressive major party, MFP hopes to make inroads in Thailand’s northwest in the elections on May 14. But its competition here is not the conservative establishment, it is MFP’s main opposition coalition partner, the Pheu Thai Party, which also professes a commitment to democratic reform.

A hugely skewed electoral system, combined with the ever-present threat of military interference in politics, however, has put the future of any partnership in question.

Thailand’s prime minister is selected by 500 elected parliamentarians and 250 senators, the latter appointed directly by the military. In 2019, the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party – led by the same generals who staged a 2014 coup – was able to form the government despite Pheu Thai winning the most seats.

Sebastian Strangio, author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, said MFP and Pheu Thai “will certainly cannibalise each other’s votes to some extent” but should also be “natural partners”.

A huge crowd at a Pheu Thai rally in Chiang Mai. They are wearing red shirts and waving flags
Analysts say Pheu Thai and MFP should be ‘natural partners’ but an electoral system favouring the military forces them to fight tooth and nail for seats [Andrew Nachemson/Al Jazeera]

While the Senate bloc limits the pool of seats for non-military parties, forcing Pheu Thai and MFP to compete more fiercely against each other, Strangio said this should theoretically also incentivise them to work together once the election is over.

“The presence of the Senate might increase the fight for lower house seats but also create strong incentives for cooperation between opposition parties after election day,” he said. “The bigger issue is the reaction of the Thai establishment to a potential Pheu Thai-MFP alliance.”

The conservative establishment has long been threatened by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – he and his sister were overthrown in military coups in 2006 and 2014 respectively. With Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra running as Pheu Thai’s main prime minister candidate, the threat of interference looms again.

Meanwhile, the more radical MFP has been even more vocal in its demands to reform the monarchy and military.

While the two parties worked in an opposition coalition together, Strangio said that forming a ruling coalition could push the military-monarchy establishment to take “steps to subvert the election result”.

Already, MFP’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat has been the recipient of a complaint to disqualify him as a candidate.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani University, and others, suspect Pheu Thai may even consider working with Phalang Pracharat after the election, if only to head off the possibility of another coup.

“Will they cooperate with MFP or will they cooperate with anyone who could help them form government?” Titipol asked. “That remains a question for many.”

But under the campaign slogan of “landslide”, Pheu Thai appears to be hoping to avoid having to choose between a potentially targeted MFP and a deeply unpopular military by winning enough seats to overcome the Senate imbalance and form a government alone.

Why the north?

The northwest has long been a stronghold for Thaksin, whose populist economic policies lifted millions out of poverty and won the Shinawatra family a loyal support base. Even though he has not returned to Thailand since 2008, parties backed by him continue to dominate the north and the last election in 2019 was no exception.

Incumbent prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha campaigning on the top of a lorry. He is wearing white and surrounded by supporters. There is a picture of the country's king behind him
Prayuth Chan-ocha is campaigning for another term in office as prime minister. He led a military coup against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014 before calling elections in 2019 [Madaree Tohlala/AFP]

Pheu Thai scored a resounding victory – winning all nine seats in Chiang Mai and 26 out of 33 in the northwest. MFP’s predecessor party won four seats in the area, also easily winning a by-election in Chiang Mai after the Pheu Thai candidate was disqualified.

But nationwide, even Pheu Thai was not popular enough to overcome the hugely stacked electoral field.

“It’s not that easy,” said Titipol. Pheu Thai would need to win 376 of the 500 seats up for election, a tall order.

If they were to achieve that landslide, it would need to start with dominating the north yet again, which means fending off MFP.

Strangio said Thailand’s north is probably drawn to the opposition parties due to years of “neglect by Thailand’s traditional ruling elite” and discrimination against a population that has more cultural overlap with Cambodia and Laos.

“Thaksin Shinawatra’s genius was to recognise the potential electoral salience of these voters and to court them effectively with populist promises of healthcare and other forms of financial aid,” he said.

MFP, meanwhile, tends to perform better in urban areas and with youth voters, both of which apply to Chiang Mai, one of Thailand’s biggest cities and home to a number of large universities.

“I think that the MFP has tapped into the discontent that has been created by the constant subversion of the people’s will since the coup of 2006, and a growing desire for a more genuine democracy – a feeling that may well be more keen in the north,” Strangio said.

No hard feelings

Speaking with Al Jazeera at a campaign stop at Chiang Mai University on April 29, MFP policy campaign manager and party-list MP candidate Parit Wacharasindhu said the party’s broad message is focused on democracy and economic inequality.

Thailand’s mixed electoral system has some candidates competing for election in geographic constituencies, while others compete from a ranked party list.

“Thailand has been facing the same problems for a very long time,” Wacharasindhu said. “In particular, for Chiang Mai decentralisation is an important agenda, to let each province have their own elected mayors instead of one appointed by the central government.”

He claimed MFP has no particular campaign strategy when it comes to beating Pheu Thai. “We believe what we are proposing is different from all other parties.”

Jakkaphon Tangsutthitham, an MP seeking reelection in Chiang Mai, said Pheu Thai is the “only” option to solve the “deep down” problems in Thailand’s political system.

He said Pheu Thai needs to win an absolute majority in parliament to get rid of the Senate’s role in elections, which he warned could be extended if another military-backed government comes into power.

MFP has bristled at this kind of existential rhetoric, which seems aimed at convincing opposition supporters to rally behind Pheu Thai, saying voters should not be “scared into abandoning their support”.

For his part, Tangsutthitham said he has no problem with MFP challenging for votes in Pheu Thai’s traditional strongholds.

“This is the beautiful thing about democracy,” he said. “The country right now has a big crack, so a lot of trees can grow, which is a good thing.”

“We’re not scared of MFP or any other side, we just do our best to serve the people,” he added.

Even some supporters are showing their flexibility.

A 25-year-old Thai language teacher who attended the April 30 rally said he supports MFP because they have more detailed policies on specific issues, like healthcare and education. But he added that he would not be disappointed if the winner was Pheu Thai, which he said had a good track record on the economy.

“They have more experience. If they won, I think they could even make some reforms faster.”

Source: Al Jazeera