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Dr Marc Askew
In a critically important by-election in southern Thailand, held on 22nd February, the ruling Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party failed to wrest control of Electorate 3 in Songkhla province from the opposition Democrats. This is the first set-back for Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra’s party, which has swept the polls in two by-elections since coming to power in 2001 as the dominant partner in a two-party coalition government (this coalition controls 326 seats of a 500 member house, with TRT having 285 seats following its absorption of the New Aspiration and Seritham parties). The Democrats form the dominant Opposition party (with 128 MPs). They hold 48 of 54 seats in the South, where a strong region-party nexus has been nurtured for over twenty years. Penetrating this Democrat stronghold is one of Taksin’s goals for the 2005 general elections. Before this Songkhla by-election, TRT had confidently aimed to win 20 seats in the South next year; but following the defeat this target has been reduced to fifteen. Some analysts now doubt that TRT can win even five seats in the South.
The by-election was a contest between two parties with contrasting styles and organisation: the DP is the oldest Thai party, bureaucratically organized and based on ideals of liberal constitutionalism; TRT is a pragmatic grouping combining savvy young political managers with old-style opportunist MPs who deserted their former parties to link their fortunes with Taksin’s new electoral juggernaut.
Last year the Democrat MP of Songkhla’s Electorate 3, Phrai Pattano, announced he would resign to compete for the mayoralty in the forthcoming Hat Yai municipal election. Like the other seven Democrat MPs of Songkhla Province, Phrai had won his seat convincingly in 2001, but the prospect of a by-election was not welcomed by Democrat leaders. This was understandable: during 2003 Taksin’s government enjoyed general popularity, claiming brilliant success for its programs (including its anti-drugs campaign, 1 million baht village development fund, and its 30 Baht medical scheme), boosted by an increasingly controlled print and television media and a publicity-driven personality cult celebrating Taksin as a successful CEO leader. Further, a spectacular rise in rubber prices since late 2001 was hailed as a product of Taksin’s statesmanship and the government hoped that many in the South (Thailand’s rubber-growing region) would switch their support to TRT.
But support for the government has been more subdued in the South. While southerners appreciate TRT’s decisive approach to policy delivery, Taksin’s own leadership is widely regarded as symptomatic of an authoritarianism they have long opposed. Beginning in August 2003, Songkhla’s MPs countered TRT’s media ‘air war’ with local political rallies stressing Taksin’s responsibility for the emerging disturbances in the Muslim border provinces. They attacked his leadership style, intolerance of criticism, nepotism in appointing relatives to key army and police posts, and his use of his corporate communications empire to mute press criticism. In January 2004, Democrat critiques of the government began to hit home in the context of the outbreak of the bird-flu epidemic and escalating levels of violence in the Muslim-dominated border provinces adjacent to Songkhla. This contributed to the heated atmosphere of the by-election.
The two local candidates played a minor role, but their selection highlighted key contrasts in party organisation. The DP’s Wirat Kalayasiri, with 15 years experience as a party member, was selected according to standard DP committee-based election procedure at the province level. By contrast, the TRT allowed three aspiring candidates to compete against each other in the electorate for six months before formal selection. TRT candidate selection is based on a secret poll conducted in the electorate and the final decision rests with a small circle of PM Taksin’s associates. This top-down approach backfired in Songkhla, with Thawisak Thawirat receiving endorsement less than a month before the election date. Once electioneering began, the Democrats were able to mobilise long-established networks of party members. The centrally focused and election-orientated TRT, by contrast, was fragmented at the local level.
The tone of the contest was set in mid-February with outcries from the Democrats that government ministers were pressuring local civil servants to act as vote canvassers and that huge sums of money were being deployed to buy votes. During the major TRT rally on 19th February, P.M. Taksin solemnly denied the DP accusations, but this was belied by the TRT canvassers, who at this rally were offering people 300 Baht for each vote. Independent sources close to the author confirm that the DP claims were well founded - between 70 to 100 million baht was distributed to local TRT canvassers. The DP rallies were popular events attended by thousands, with DP leaders feted as beloved heroes. Having captured the moral high ground as virtuous underdogs, the party’s formidable orators and personalities (including former leader Chuan Leekpai) slammed the government for endangering Thailand’s hard-won democracy and duping the public with shallow populist policies.
The Democrats won convincingly by over 25,000 votes. Initially dreaded by the Democrat leadership as an untimely threat, the Songkhla by-election is now celebrated as a fortuitous boost to the party’s image in the lead-up to the national elections. But the conditions underlying this victory in the Democrat heartland may not be transferable to other regions. The contest showed how closely southerners still identify with the Democrat Party as an institution and how deeply rooted are its local branch structures. It revealed that Taksins’ party, based on top-down decision-making and election-oriented marketing, has weaknesses at the local level. The Songkhla contest also shows clearly that Thailand’s politics has moved rapidly towards a two-party system. This is a recent development, but money politics still remains entrenched.
WATCHPOINT: What lessons might the Thai Rak Thai party learn from its defeat in the Songkhla by-election, and can the Democrats capitalise on their victory in future elections?
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