In this webinar, Dr. James Ockey and Dr. Punchada Sirivunnabood examined the development and adaptations of political parties in Thailand. Drawing on the manuscript of the speakers’ book on the stability, change, institutionalization and evolution of Thailand’s political party system, the webinar seeks to shed light on the current state and future of major parties. Thai.
STUDY IN THAILAND WEBINAR
14 March 2022, Monday – The webinar was based on the manuscript of the Speakers’ Book on Thailand’s Political Party System, in preparation for submission to ISEAS Publishing.
Dr. Ockey spoke about the historical development of political parties in Thailand. He presented the vast academic literature on the evolution of political parties around the world. This literature emphasizes that the first political parties were cadres-style parties, dominated by legislators. However, mass-type parties soon emerged as existing organizations sought to make themselves heard in parliaments. Over time, the two party models began to converge, their ideological accents weakening. Catch-all evenings have thus emerged. These parties were more bureaucratic and enjoyed weaker loyalty from their members. Over time, they evolved into cartel-like parties, which often received government subsidies and served as political intermediaries. The next stage in the development of political parties led to high-profile parties, in which branches and membership were less important; these parties contacted supporters via the media. Finally, recent times have seen the emergence of digital parties, characterized by the use of the internet to structure parties, strong leaders, engaged grassroots, and little structure between party leadership and the grassroots.
Dr. Ockey then turned to the Thai case. In Thailand, political factions were the dominant feature of the cadre-style party, which has long been central to the study of the country’s political parties. An influential analysis of the Thai Rak Thai party, founded in the late 1990s, however, saw it as an “electoral professional party”, resembling a cartel-like party.
Dr. Ockey divided the evolution of Thai political parties into periods: the pre-party era, 1932-1944; the first era of the Cadre Party, 1944-1955; the era of the State Party framework, 1955-1971; the era of the civilized cadre Party, 1974-1980. This latter era was followed in the 1980s and 1990s by an era of increasingly elaborate umbrella parties. And, despite this trajectory, Thailand’s Political Parties Act of 1968 was based on an idealized view of mass parties (except insofar as these parties might adopt leftist ideologies). Nevertheless, the parties of civilized cadres in the period following the enactment of the law were neither mass parties nor catch-all parties. The more elaborate cadre parties that emerged later had larger factions and interlocking factions.
Thailand’s 1997 Constitution included provisions meant to reset the political party system, but the real breakthrough came four years later, Dr Ockey said, with the election victory of the Thai Rak Thai party. He was very much focused on his leadership and led by professional politicians. He also benefited from government subsidies. Thai Rak Thai and his successors won every election for thirteen years. Many other parties tried to imitate it, but they did not imitate its structure. Thai Rak Thai also attached great importance to public relations; it evolved in the direction of becoming a mediatized party.
Thailand has recently seen the emergence of a digital party, Dr Ockey said. That party was the now disbanded Future Forward Party, with its strong internet presence and prominent leader. But the party proved costly to run – a factor that led to its downfall in court.
Dr Ockey concluded his comments by saying that with the exception of the Bhumjaithai party, virtually all parties in Thailand have now collapsed as money has been drained from the political party system.
In his own webinar remarks, Dr Punchada focused on the current state of Thailand’s political party system, likely developments over the next six months, and what could happen in the country’s next general election. . As the Prayut Chan-ocha government has a good chance of lasting its full four-year term, it is likely that this election will take place next year.
Dr. Punchada noted that Thailand’s 2017 Constitution seeks to institutionalize political parties by promoting cartel-type parties through government subsidies, branch and primaries requirements to select candidates, and other measures. Some major parties created only the minimum number of branches to comply with the law, while other parties created a large number of branches to obtain public funding. Similarly, in many cases, the politicians themselves have paid the dues of many members of their parties in order to fill the membership lists.
This resulted in practice, explained Dr. Punchada, in a weak institutionalization of parties, a situation which resembled that before the promulgation of the 1997 Constitution. For example, the Phalang Pracharat Party, the core hard core of the current ruling coalition, has some twenty-five factions. Like other parties, it made little effort to increase its membership.
Dr. Punchada discussed the current state of major Thai parties.
• A number of Phalang Pracharat factions split off to form new parties. The technocrat faction launched the Sang Anakhot Thai Party. The faction loyal to the former general secretary of Phalang Pracharat, Thammanat Prompao, has joined the Thai Economy Party. And the Ruamthai Sangchat party is a third party whose members left Phalang Pracharat, albeit with the intention of supporting Prime Minister Prayut and serving as a proxy Phalang Pracharat party.
• The Phuea Thai Party, the successor party to the Thai Rak Thai, also changed parties, its former leader Sudarat Keyuraphan having left to form the Thai Sang Thai Party. This new party could effectively compete with Phuea Thai in Bangkok.
• The Democratic Party has experienced splits. The group associated with the People’s Democratic Reform Council protests of 2015 joined Phalang Pracharat ahead of the 2019 election. Former Deputy Democratic Leader Suthep Thueaksuban also created the Thailand Party Action Coalition to challenge those polls. More recently, Kon Chatikwanit launched the Kla Party; its performance in a recent by-election in Bangkok suggests that, with its appeal to young, educated voters, the party could do well in the capital in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
• Some parliamentarians left the Move Forward party, which succeeded Future Forward, for the Bhumjaithai party. Another Move Forward MP founded the Ruam Thai United, which could appeal to voters in Bangkok and provincial towns, according to Dr Punchada.
Dr Punchada said recent developments among Thailand’s political parties had left the Bhumjaithai party as the real winner. It attracted parliamentarians from other parties, including the former Future Forward Party. The Bhumjaithai party does not suffer from debilitating factionalism. He may be on track to do well in the next general election, perhaps with additional defectors from Phuea Thai and Phalang Pracharat.
Thailand will see a parliamentary censure debate in May. Dr Punchada noted that the Phalang Pracharat party was working to ensure the survival of Prime Minister Prayut. From a longer-term perspective, it appears that Thailand’s party system has reverted to the pre-1997 era, in which parties were marked by factionalism, low membership and insignificant branch networks. The 2017 Constitution did not revamp Thai politics. Nevertheless, the reintroduction of the two-round system, in which Thais will vote separately in the next elections for constituency and party list deputies, will not disadvantage Phalang Pracharat. The party should still be able to form a coalition with the support of smaller parties that manage to win constituency seats.
The questions posed to the speakers by the webinar participants concerned the paradox of parties being prohibited from participating in elections at provincial, sub-district and municipal levels, but supposed to hold primaries at the provincial level to select candidates for parliament; whether the requirement for primaries would be in place for the next general election; whether Thammanat posed a threat to Prayut’s remaining prime minister; and whether the Thai Economy Party could emerge as a mid-sized party, like Bhumjaithai, after the next election. Participants also asked whether the absence of popular party leaders could be as important as the lack of financial resources in the current weakness of the parties, and whether the first problem did not explain the second; if the parties would continue and if Thailand would then face a period of weak parties; how Bhumjaithai would fare under the revised election rules; whether a digital party had a chance of winning future Thai elections; and whether efforts to fix the country’s splintered party system had any chance of succeeding.