MS Risk Blog

Thailand’s Leadership Crisis

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Thailand is experiencing a new political turmoil. The victory of the independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt as governor of Bangkok on 22 May has raised many questions on the future political trends in the country. The coincidence of political instability with the world economic crisis and pandemic places Thailand in a dangerous drift that also harbours other social and territorial conflicts, mainly in the three southern provinces bordering Malaysia that have a majority Muslim population and speak Malay (the 80%). Thailand, with a population of 69 million and a GDP of 543 million dollars, is the second largest economy in ASEAN. In 2022 it was considered in the latest report published by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit a “flawed democracy”.

In May 2022, the independent candidate and former Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt won by a landslide victory in the elections for the Governor of Bangkok, the capital of the country. He obtained around 1,300,000 votes compared to 250,000 for his immediate rival. Chadchart Sittipunt took the time to greet those present in his victory rally, many of them young participants in the protests against the monarchy in 2020. The elected governor, who was arrested during the military coup d’état of May 2014, promised to work to “overcome all the conflicts of the past”, in reference to the political division that Thailand has suffered for more than 15 years. These were the first elections held after the massive student protests demanding a deep democratic reform in the country, including in the almighty monarchy. His landslide victory has drawn the attention of analysts for three reasons.

First of all, his election has evidenced Thailand’s leadership crisis, and has been considered as a sign of the public’s discontent with the main party of the coalition. The fact that he won in 50/50 districts of the capital shows the sinking public support for the governing coalition, since Bangkok’s constituency supported Prayuth, the leader of the coalition, in 2019. Prayut, the general who led the coup d’état and became a politician in 2019, is suffering from loss of public support ahead of the general elections that must be held before the end of March 2023. This could be explained due to numerous economic and societal problems, topped by sexual scandals of coalition members (politician Prinn Panitchpakdi) and a bungled vaccine rollout. The loss of support of the main party of the coalition in Bangkok, even if it could reflect the public mood in a future general election and a desire for leadership change, should not be extrapolated to the whole of Thailand. Other factors apart from ideology also play a role in Thai politics, such as the rural-urban division and the role of the monarchy.

Secondly, the sweeping victory of an independent candidate and the decreased support for traditional parties has raised questions about the end of the so-called colour politics. In Thailand, yellow and red have been used to refer to the conservative/royalist vs anti-establishment political division, respectively. Chadchart Sittipunt’s sweeping victory might be a sign that the general public is ready to move beyond the traditional political division. Some analysts have created parallelisms with the politics dynamics of other countries in south-east Asia such as the Philippines, where voters decide their vote not on ideology or parties, but on specific personalities and programs. His victory showed that, regardless of Chadchart’s background, voters identified with him and voted for him. This is especially the case with many first-time-voters (16% of the total voters in this election), who showed support for Chadchart’s environmental policies for the city. Most importantly, he managed to gather support from across the political spectrum and defy traditional division. Another factor that explains his victory is that he had been doing informal political campaign for these elections for the last two years with the support of 10,000 volunteers, portraying himself “as a truly independent candidate with integrity”.

Finally, a surprising thing about Chadchart’s victory was precisely the percentage of support he received. With 4,4 million eligible voters, and a 60% of participation registered (around 2,64 million people voted), the 1.39 million votes he gathered means that he had a support of 52% of the voters. In previous years, different surveys have shown that popular support for the main politicians such as Prayuth had never exceeded 30%. The popular discontent with the main politicians in the country is evidenced by a survey that was conducted in December 2021, where 36,54% of respondents said that “there was no suitable individual for the role of prime minister”.  Chadchart’s landslide victory was thus an unexpected and rare event in Thailand’s political landscape. This is especially rare taking into account that there were 31 candidates running for this local election, which consequently caused a division of the vote among many candidates.

The evolution of the leadership crisis in Thailand ahead of the general elections of March 2023 could have consequences both in its domestic and international spheres. Domestically, the lack of cohesion of political forces means that, right after the pandemic, Thailand lacks reconciliation and consensus among its institutions to ensure the country’s governance. A stronger cooperation and consensus among political groups would help the economic revival of the country, deeply affected by the pandemic due to its significant reliance on the tourism sector. Internationally, the leadership crisis, if not tackled, would harm the country’s image, especially ahead of Thailand’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on 18 and 19 November 2022 and ahead of the general elections in March 2023. The emergence of a successful independent candidate as governor of Bangkok could be the beginning of a new political dynamic in Thailand, which could eventually lead to fresh solutions to the country’s problems.