Battlefield Transformed: Deciphering Thailand’s Divisive 2019 Poll in Bangkok
Updated: Nov 28, 2019
By Napisa Waitoolkiat and Paul Chambers
Picture: Flag of Thailand's Capital, Bangkok
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Thailand’s March 24, 2019 general election, though biased in favor of pro-junta political party Palang Pracharat (PPRP), nevertheless amounted to a referendum on the staying power of both Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai (PT) and the conservative Democrats (DP). It was also a test of the ability of newcomer Future Forward Party (FFP) to make inroads. Our focus seeks to compare and contrast how these four parties, each “big” in the sense that they gained the most votes nationwide, performed in Bangkok. Yet which party was the biggest winner and which was the biggest loser, and why? This post addresses these questions.
Perhaps no electoral battlefield witnessed the clash of these four parties more vividly than Bangkok. Bangkok’s uniqueness is worth examining for several reasons. First, unlike other parts of Thailand, the electoral competition for seats in Bangkok has always been highly contentious. In the March election, such competition could especially be seen among the four aforementioned parties, where each gained the largest number of votes in the country. When scrutinizing the percentage of votes cast in Bangkok’s recent election, those four parties’ votes accounted for at least 70% of all votes. Second, by looking at Bangkok’s electoral competition, we might be able to reveal the myth that all Bangkokian people hate Thaksin. Third, with regard to legitimacy, any ruling party unable to hold a sizeable number of seats in Bangkok might be unable to maintain control over the government as evidenced by the Banharn Silpa-archa administration (1995-1996). Fourth, Bangkok appears to be the center of a growing new “youth” vote. Finally, Bangkok is the most populous administrative area relative to other parts of Thailand, a reality which has shaped the strategies that parties competing there have used.
Palang Pracharat (PPRP)
In terms of Bangkok’s 30 constituency seats, three parties won: PPRP emerged as the strongest party, taking 12 seats, PT and first-time competitor FFP each garnered 9, while the Democrat Party got zero seats. Unlike Thailand’s previous polls, the 2019 election utilized multi-member apportionment (MMA) with 350 constituency seats and 150 party list seats. MMA tends to favor small and medium-sized parties rather than larger parties. For the party list, the formula for seat allocation takes into account the nationwide district votes of second-placed, third-placed, or “also-run” candidates from each party that submits the candidates for the party list.
Why was PPRP so successful in Bangkok? First, many Bangkokians who were traditionally conservative Democrats, instead voted strategically for Prayuth’s party because they wanted strongman (dictator-turned-politician) Prayuth (with his Pracha Niyompopulism) to remain in power. These voters felt that the Democrats were a weak alternative to PPRP. The Democrats’ position on Prayuth was unclear (see below), while PPRP had nominated Prayuth as their candidate for Prime Minister, sending a clear signal. Second, in Bangkok, as in other parts of Thailand, PPRP lured candidates from other parties as evidenced by at least two party switchers, one from Rak Santi Party in Bangkok’s District 9; another from Democrat Party in District 15.
Pheu Thai (PT)
Turning to PT, the party won fewer seats than PPRP in Bangkok, but keep in mind that PT only competed in 22 districts. Indeed, the stronghold of PT in parts of Bangkok remained unchanged from the 2011 election. In 2019, PT secured 9 (41%) of the 22 seats in which it competed. Interestingly, PT’s electoral performance was better in 2019 than in 2011 when it won 10 out of 33 seats (30%). But despite PT’s performance, Bangkok’s electoral landscape is much more complicated and fragmented in 2019 than it was in 2011, when only PT and DP won seats (see Table 1).
Table 1: Seats won by PT and DP in Bangkok in 2011 and 2019 Elections
Total Seats Available in 2011 Election
PT’s strategy for the March 2019 election was to focus on winning constituency seats since it expected few seats from the party list. To do this, it sought to achieve a robust margin of victory. When looking at the average margin of victory between winner and runner-up (see Table 2), PT’s was higher than PPRP. Indeed, PT’s margin of victory in this regard was quite high (0.17). Table 2 also shows that out of 9 seats that PT won in Bangkok, it only won one seat by a narrow margin (≤ 5%). In the rest of the districts, PT won by large margins. Excluding the single case of that narrow margin, the average margin of victory for PT was the highest relative to PPRP and FFP. Moreover, by looking at PT’s large margins of victory, one wonders to what extent Bangkokians really oppose Thaksin/PT. Thus, conventional wisdom that Bangkokians are solidly anti-Thaksin is probably overstated. Perhaps this amounts to simple anti-Thaksin political discourse.
Table 2: Seats and Votes Won by PT, PPRP and FFP in Bangkok
Democrats Party (DP)
The Democrat Party was clearly the biggest loser in Thailand’s 2019 election in Bangkok, given that it had won 23 out of 33 seats in Bangkok in 2011 (see Table 1). In 2019, DP failed to win a single seat and was the runner-up in only one constituency! Though the percentage of DP second runner-up votes (5%) was generally higher than PT or PPRP (see Table 3), DP’s performance (as seen through the average ratio of second runner-up to runner-up votes for DP) was much lower (0.66) than those of the three other parties (0.90, 0.90, 0.88 [see Table 4]). This means that even the third place candidates of FFP, PT, and PPRP could each almost garner the same amount of votes as those of the runner-up. However, this is not the case of third place candidates of DP where he/she received far less of the number of votes than those of the runner-up.
Why did the Democrats perform poorly? First, traditionally DP has been a conservative-centrist party. But in 2019, DP voters were more ideologically divided, especially between conservative ones who were staunch junta supporters and more progressive ones who favored rapid moves toward more political space. Second, right before the election, now-ex-Party Leader Abhisit Vechachiwa sent mixed messages about supporting Prayuth Chan-ocha remaining premier. Abhisit’s lack of clarity angered those DP voters who had participated in and/or supported the pre-2014 coup mass demonstrations against the Yingluck Shinawatra government and still supported the junta while also frustrating progressive DP voters who expected Abhisit to clearly make a break away from junta leader Prayuth. In the end, the fuzziness of Abhisit’s message did not keep DP together but instead further divided the already fissiparous party. Ultimately, because of DP weaknesses, the party lost ground to both PPRP and FFP (see Table 3).
Table 3: Comparing Votes of Each Party
Table 4: Vote Shares of Second-Runner-up Candidates by Party
*We adopted this concept from "SF Ratio" by Cox. The SF Ratio is "the ratio of the second to the first loser's vote total" (Cox, 1997, p.85). When the votes of the second loser are close to those of the first loser, the ratio will come close to 1. In contrast, when the votes of the second loser are far from those of the first loser, the ratio will come close to 0.
Future Forward Party (FFP)
Finally, FFP’s electoral performance was unexpected. It gained the most votes (26%) in Bangkok relative to other parties (see Table 3). There are several reasons for this. First, the youth vote (voters aged 18-25) was crucial. Youthful voters account for 14.3 % of all eligible voters nationwide. Within the youth vote, Bangkok’s youthful voters are the largest compared with those in other provinces. For example, Bangkok’s youthful voters account for 8.2% of all Thai youth voters compared to the second largest province with youthful voters (Nakorn Ratchasima, which is 3.9%). Looking specifically at Bangkok, Bangkok’s youthful voters account for 13.4% of all Bangkok voters. In Bangkok, most of these 13.4% could have voted overwhelmingly for FFP (Authors’ calculation based on the link herein https://www.matichon.co.th/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/1.pdf). Second, upon the judicial dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart (TRC), most TRC voters could have transferred their votes to FFP. Though this probably happened in other parts of Thailand, it was probably more significant in Bangkok because Bangkok was the center of FFP’s electoral victories. Third, the effect of MMA electoral rules facilitated FFP’s victory. Since all votes of losing parties are calculated for party list seats, new and/or mid-sized parties like FFP benefit from hanging votes. Given that the MMA takes into account the votes of losing parties, voters might not face as much pressure to vote strategically compared to voters in pure single member district voting systems. Under this circumstance, new and/or mid-sized parties might follow a strategy aiming not only to be the winner but also the runner-up and 2ndrunner-up. As Table 5 shows, the votes of the second runner-up of all parties accounted for (639,386) 21% of the total votes in Bangkok. Interestingly, FFP garnered 44% of total 2nd runner-up votes, and that 44% accounted for 9% of FFP’s votes in Bangkok.
The most difficult task for FFP was to win constituency seats since it was a new party with no name recognition. However, FFP utilized the social media, and, with a young, vibrant leader in Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, positioned itself as an anti-junta, youth-oriented, reformist party, capitalizing on growing dissent against the junta as well as those unhappy with the regime’s performance. FFP’s own performance was reflected in the fact that it achieved large (≥ 5%) margins of victory in seven of the nine constituencies in which it competed (see Table 2).
Table 5: Vote Shares of Winning, Runner-up, and Second Runner-up Candidates by Party
In retrospect, the March 2019 general election for Bangkok showed that there is an acrimonious divide in most of Thailand between voters and parties supporting the junta on one side (PPRP) and voters and parties opposing the junta on the other side (PT and FFP). Bangkok was a microcosm of this divide, and the Democrats were destroyed by this division. The election also marked a triumph for new parties—PPRP and FFP, in what would appear to be a healthy dose of new party politics for Thailand. Yet one issue for all of Thailand coming out of the election (because of MMA) is that of accountability for some party-list MPs who were elected not because of their own performance but because of the accumulated winning/losing votes of their constituency colleagues.Though party list MPs existed in previous Thai electoral systems, in those previous elections, there was a clear distinction between the MPs for districts and MPs for the party list. Candidates for the party (nationwide or regionwide) list made the campaign on the basis of broader policy in order to appeal to voters. In contrast, the candidates for district seats tended to focus more on specific needs relevant to voters in a given area. Furthermore, unlike the 2019 electoral rules, Thai voters had two ballots, one for constituency seats and one for party list seats. Each ballot compelled constituency and party list candidates to try to be accountable to voters. Possessing two ballots allowed voters to penalize or reward candidates in a very clear manner. However, in the 2019 election, voters have only one ballot for selecting both constituency and party-list MPs. There is less accountability for party-list MPs, who only exist as an indirect result of voters’ selection of constituency MPs. The 2019 election is also the first which allows parties with accumulated losing votes to take parliamentary seats (e.g. New Democracy Party). How do we make such MPs serve and respond to the needs of constituents? To what type or group of voters should they be accountable since they do not know exactly who elected them?
A more serious issue is whether the election will actually help Thailand transition back to democracy. Critics have decried this election as perhaps the dirtiest in Thailand’s history, on a par with the tainted poll of 1957. In this election’s aftermath, threats by the army commander as well as irregularities by the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) (whose leadership was appointed by the junta) have served to delegitimize the poll. The ECT has promised to release at least 95% of all the results by May 9 but must still contend with numerous cases of electoral malfeasance. At the same time, post-election the ECT has been talking about altering the election formula so that over twenty-five micro-parties would each have a chance for a seat in parliament. The fear is that the election Thais thought would restore democracy, is now being manipulated to suit the interests of Thailand’s military and aristocracy.
Napisa Waitoolkiat serves as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Naresuan University, Phitsanulok, Thailand.
Paul Chambers is Lecturer and Special Advisor for International Affairs, Center of ASEAN Community Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Naresuan University, Phitsanulok, Thailand.
The data in this paper is based upon authors’ calculations derived from the Election Commission of Thailand, https://www.ect.go.th/ect_th/