Green in the Heart of Red: Understanding Phayao Province's Switch to Palang Pracharat in Thailand's 2019 General Election.

AuthorSelway, Joel Sawat

As the stronghold of political parties associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Upper North of Thailand had consistently voted for various incarnations of Thaksin-aligned parties since 2001, turning it into the country's "red heartland". (1) However, the general election in March 2019 witnessed the striking emergence of a khaki-green patch in the heart of the Thaksinite red country. This khaki-green patch represents the electoral breakthrough of Palang Pracharat, the new party associated with the military. A primary example for this significant change is Phayao Province, one of the traditional strongholds of Thaksin-aligned parties in the Upper North. Palang Pracharat succeeded in securing two out of the three constituency seats in the province.

Phayao was not the only crack in the red heartland of the Upper North, as Phrae (the province immediately south of Phayao) went orange to the Future Forward Party. However, the results in Phrae can be explained by the absence of candidates from Thaksinite parties like Pheu Thai and Thai Raksa Chart, Pheu Thai's sister party. However, this was not the case in Phayao: Pheu Thai ran in all three constituencies, but emerged victorious in only one. Given the solid popular support for Pheu Thai in the past, what does this electoral outcome mean for partisanship in the Upper North as well as for Thai politics in general?

The durability of support for Pheu Thai among voters in Thailand's North and Northeast regions has been vigorously debated by observers of Thai politics. On one side are scholars like Allen Hicken who argue that party loyalty is becoming more entrenched as voters have developed affective ties to particular parties and therefore a sense of party identity or partisanship. (2) On the other side are scholars like Michael Nelson who argue that old-style personal networks remain the most crucial element for electoral victory and attribute Pheu Thai's past successes to its ability to co-opt these networks. (3) In order to resolve this debate, it is crucial to understand the voting intentions of the electorate.

Based on anonymous interviews with 234 Phayao voters after they completed a public opinion survey, this article finds that Phayao voters switched from Pheu Thai to Palang Pracharat for three reasons: first, personal ties; second, policy adaptations; and third, practical considerations. First, Phairoth Tanbanjong, a member of Thaksinite parties since 2005, switched to Palang Pracharat. His personal ties to voters had been built up across 23 years as a candidate and 19 years as an elected representative in Phayao. Second, Palang Pracharat recognized the attractiveness of Pheu Thai policies, and during the preceding four years of rule by the junta had developed and implemented policies to target low-income segments of the population and rural areas. This policy credibility was accredited to General Prayuth Chan-o-cha--who led the 2014 coup--and the party that nominated him for the post of prime minister. Third, voters had accepted the inevitability of military rule, and did not see the elections as fully free and fair. They thus voted for Palang Pracharat, either to retain benefits or gain access to them.

Despite voting for Palang Pracharat, however, most voters still prefer Pheu Thai to all other parties. An opinion survey revealed that around 26 per cent of the respondents who voted for Palang Pracharat actually prefer Pheu Thai. In the qualitative interviews, most respondents indicated that Pheu Thai was their true favourite and expressed some guilt at not having voted for the party. This sense of guilt can be attributed to partisanship, through which voters develop a dimension of their identity based on their identification with a particular political party. Put differently, for these voters, being a Pheu Thai supporter is an important part of how they see and present themselves. Another legacy of Thaksinite parties is the importance of policy in their voting preferences. There is a clear ideological preference for demand-side economic policy and for increasing the social safety net. This legacy, ironically, has facilitated the switch to voting for Palang Pracharat, as well as the large vote tally for Future Forward, not just in Phayao, but across the whole country.

Following this introduction, the article provides a brief history of voting in Phayao. It then provides an overview of partisanship and clientelism scholarship on voting intention in Thailand. Subsequently, it presents the results of the interviews, organized by the three major themes that emerged: personal ties, policy adaptations and practical considerations. The article then discusses local voters' continuing preference for Pheu Thai, despite having voted for Palang Pracharat. The final section provides the conclusions.

Voting Red in Phayao: A Brief History

The province of Phayao, located in Thailand's Upper North, held its first election in 1979, two years after it was carved out as a separate entity from the province of Chiang Rai. (4) Between 1979 and 2001, Thailand held eight elections, and Phayao voted for candidates from nine different parties (see Table 1). In none of these elections did a single party succeed in capturing all three of the province's constituency seats.

From 2001 until the 2019 election, however, parties aligned to Thaksin managed to win all three constituency seats in Phayao. Thai Rak Thai secured all three seats in 2001, 2005 and 2006. (5) In 2007, all the three MPs representing Phayao were from the Thai Rak Thai's successor party, the People's Power Party. Similarly, Pheu Thai, which succeeded the People's Power Party, was able to retain the three seats in the 2011 election. (6) In addition, during both the 2007 and 2016 constitutional referenda, voters in Phayao rejected the draft constitutions proposed by the military.

The 2011 election saw unprecedented support for Pheu Thai in Phayao, with 64 per cent of the province's electorate voting for the party. Pheu Thai won an astounding 79.5 per cent of the vote in the province's Constituency 2, 66.1 per cent in Constituency 3 and 48.8 per cent in Constituency 1. The Democrat Party came in second, grossing only 23.7 per cent of the total votes across the three constituencies, trailing Pheu Thai by almost 40 per cent. In the 2019 election, however, Pheu Thai's share of the total vote fell to 34.7 per cent and the Democrat Party virtually disappeared as an electoral force. Meanwhile, Palang Pracharat surged to gain 46.6 per cent of the vote. Another new party--Future Forward--came in third with 18.7 per cent. The 2019 results, therefore, represent a dramatic break from the pattern of the previous two decades. If the voting dynamics in Phayao signal a broader shift in electoral sentiments in the North and other Pheu Thai strongholds, Thailand's political landscape could be on the verge of a huge transformation.

In the 2019 elections, each of Phayao's three constituencies saw a three-horse race between Palang Pracharat, Pheu Thai and Future Forward. In Constituency 1, the Palang Pracharat candidate Thammanat Promphao won by a significant margin, securing 52,417 votes against Pheu Thai candidate Arunee Chamnanya's 21,971 votes. As the Future Forward candidate only managed to obtain 16,326 votes, Palang Pracharat would still have prevailed in a straight fight in Constituency 1 against Pheu Thai, even if all the Future Forward votes were diverted to Pheu Thai. In Constituency 2, the Pheu Thai candidate Wisuth Chayanarun landed 37,503 votes against Palang Pracharat candidate Thawat Suthawong's 27,017 votes. Here, Future Forward again came in third with 19,008 votes. Lastly, in Constituency 3, Jeeradeth Sriwirath garnered 41,775 votes for Palang Pracharat against Pheu Thai's Phairoth Tanbanjong who obtained 30,761 votes. Overall, Palang Pracharat took two of the three seats in Phayao, mustering a total of 121,209 votes (46.6 per cent) against Pheu Thai's 90,235 (34.7 per cent) and Future Forward's 48,593 (18.7 per cent).

The results in Phayao exemplified the military government's efforts to ensure there was no repeat of landslide victories for Thaksin-aligned parties. Before the election, it introduced two key constitutional amendments that reserved all the seats in the Upper House to MPs appointed by the military and required the prime minister to be appointed jointly by the Lower and Upper Houses, which effectively gives the military the right to select the prime minister. These amendments diminished the chance that the largest party elected to the parliament would be able to head the government. As demonstrated below, this prompted many Thais to vote practically and cast their ballot for the party they presumed to be the inevitable winner.

At the same time, the military government also changed the electoral rules. Previously, the 500-member Lower House was composed of 375 members directly elected in single-member districts on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) basis and an additional 125 members indirectly elected through a second and separate party-list ballot. This Mixed Member Majoritarian (MMM) system was replaced by a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system in the 2019 election. Under the new system, the number of party-list MPs was increased to 150 and the selection process was changed. Instead of casting two separate ballots for the district and party-list seats, voters were now provided with a single ballot. The nationwide tallies of the parties' vote totals would determine the distribution of the 150 party-list seats among the parties. Since these party-list seats were meant to be compensatory and aimed at making the legislature more nationally proportional, a party that won a large number of constituency seats may not gain any party-list seats. (7) This rule was designed specifically to hurt Pheu Thai, which won 136 out of the 350 constituency seats but was not granted a single...

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