Thailand's July Election
Understanding the Outcome

July 21, 2011

What are the implications of the Pheu Thai party victory for Thai domestic political stability, Bangkok’s relations with its neighbors, and the United States-Thailand alliance? Catharin Dalpino, the principal investigator for NBR’s “U.S.-Thailand Alliance: Reinvigorating the Partnership” project, offers insights on the election outcome in this interview with NBR.

An Interview with Catharin Dalpino

By Tim Cook
July 21, 2011

In an interview with NBR, Catharin Dalpino discusses the results of the recent elections in Thailand, assessing the implications of the Pheu Thai Party victory for Thai domestic political stability, Bangkok’s relations with its neighbors, and the U.S.-Thailand alliance.

Ms. Dalpino is the principal investigator for NBR’s “U.S.-Thailand Alliance: Reinvigorating the Partnership” project. She serves as the Joan M. Warburg Professor of International Relations at Simmons College and is Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.

The Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, won a convincing majority of seats in the July 3 election. Why was the result so decisive in Pheu Thai’s favor?

Pheu Thai had been tipped in the polls to win at least a plurality in the elections. The Election Commission has not yet certified the results and will likely not do so until August, and so we do not know at this point what the final tally will be. However, preliminary post-election reporting holds that Pheu Thai has won a majority, which has only happened once before in the country’s parliamentary elections—in 2005 when Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party won the majority. The commission has now endorsed the results of the contest for Yingluck’s own seat and declared her the winner.

If indeed Pheu Thai has brought in a majority of the 500 parliamentary seats, there were several contributing factors. The north and northeastern regions of Thailand are Pheu Thai strongholds (while the Democrat Party traditionally wins in the south). In addition, Pheu Thai has built on the success of its two predecessor parties—Thai Rak Thai and the People’s Power Party—by using mass communication effectively in campaigns. Last, the Pheu Thai campaign platform included a menu of economic policies that are aimed at rural Thais and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.

After Pheu Thai’s victory, Mr. Abhisit conceded the election and resigned as leader of the Democrat Party, and the military has said that it will respect the election’s outcome. This is a positive sign in the wake of last year’s bloody clashes in Bangkok. What must happen for peace to be maintained once Pheu Thai forms a new government?

The initial response to the election results from several quarters was encouraging. This is the first national election in Thailand since 2007, following a turbulent period that saw the takeover of the prime minister’s office and Bangkok’s international airport by one political movement (the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or “yellow shirts”) in 2008, as well as the seizure of the Ratchaprasong commercial district and subsequent government crackdown by another (the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or “red shirts”) in 2010. That Thailand could conduct a peaceful election with a large turnout in the aftermath of these events suggests that the country’s democratic development is moving forward, however slowly and however cautiously. The reaction to the election results by Thai military leaders suggests that the military is more focused on assuming a professional role than a political one.

However, the Election Commission has nearly 2,000 complaints and allegations of electoral violations that require investigation. In addition, the two parties with the largest number of votes (the Pheu Thai Party and the Democrat Party) have made requests to the Election Commission to have the other party dissolved. (Under the Thai constitution, if leaders of a party are found guilty of electoral abuse, the entire party can be disbanded.) If the Election Commission finds merit in either complaint and the cases begin working their way through the legal system, this early equanimity could be shattered.

Thai politics have been very factionalized and polarized in the past six years. Is this a permanent state of affairs? In political terms, can Thais be divided into “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”?

Although tensions in Thai politics have been high, parsing them into easy opposites is neither accurate nor helpful. The media and some analysts have often cast the conflict in zero-sum terms, such as red vs. yellow shirts or urban vs. rural. There are an increasing number of actors in the Thai political dynamic, and the party system is rather fluid. For example, some analysts had perceived the Democrat Party (Abhisit’s party) to be on the yellow shirt side because of its opposition to parties affiliated with Thaksin. In reality, it had a much more independent position, as yellow shirt leaders soon discovered when the Abhisit government assumed power. Another example is the highly publicized urban-rural divide. However, the Thai rural sector is itself divided politically. While rural voters in the north and northeast tended to support Thaksin, the opposite was true among voters from rural areas in the south and parts of central Thailand.

What kind of campaign promises were made by the incoming Pheu Thai Party? Which promises are most likely to be pursued by Yingluck in the early stages of the new government?

The planks in the Pheu Thai Party’s economic platform are the most critical to the party’s base, and those are the ones that are likely to receive immediate attention. These include a promise to raise the minimum wage by as much as 40%, which obviously appeals to lower-income Thais. However, the Federation of Thai Industries has publicly criticized the policy in recent days, which signals that the business community views the measure as too much, too soon.

Another promise that appeals to the Thai rural sector is the proposal to resurrect the Thaksin policy of “rice mortgages,” in which the government buys rice from farmers at above-market rates and then sells it on the open market. This policy would likely disadvantage Thai rice on the world market and give a new advantage to rice exports from countries such as Vietnam and India. The Thai government would then need to dig into its own coffers to make up the difference, placing a strain on the national budget. To implement either policy successfully, the government would have to generate enough economic growth to cover costs, which could be a challenge in the current global economy.

What do the election results mean for Thailand’s relations with other countries in the region? Will Thailand now have a more active role in ASEAN?

Assuming the elections bring greater political stability, the new government will be better positioned to raise Thailand’s regional profile. The international community is reassessing policy toward Myanmar in the wake of its November 2010 elections, security problems on the borders, and questions about the relationship between Pyongyang and Naypyidaw. As a “frontline” state, Thailand is a key player in this process. In addition, Thailand (through both its government and its civil society) has an important role to play in addressing the increasing number of policy issues regarding the Mekong River.

Last, the ASEAN secretary-general is Thai, former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan. Surin has had a high profile in ASEAN affairs for two decades. For example, in 1998 he proposed that ASEAN consider moving from its long-standing principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of member states to “flexible engagement,” which would allow it to take a common stand if a member country’s policy were to affect the entire group. Although ASEAN did not formally adopt the “flexible engagement” principle, it has tacitly moved toward that in the past few years.

Will the elections have any effect on the border dispute with neighboring Cambodia?

Since 2008, tensions on the Thai-Cambodian border have been a factor in the domestic dynamics of both countries. In a larger sense, however, reducing tensions on the border is in the best interest of both sides, and it is in ASEAN’s interest as well. As ASEAN approaches completion of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, for example, it will find integration more difficult if two members states are in military conflict with one another.

On July 18, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), responding to a request from Cambodia to rule on the border conflict, instructed the Thai and Cambodian governments to withdraw troops from a defined demilitarized zone around the Preah Vihear temple. The Abhisit administration in Bangkok has said that it will abide by the ruling, but the Thai political transition may complicate that process. The incoming government, which has not yet been certified, will have to reaffirm that intention and follow through on the ICJ process when it takes power, presumably in a few weeks. In the interim, it is possible that political groups that had been the most vocal on the border conflict, such as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, will ratchet up their rhetoric on the issue.

What does the new government in Thailand mean for the U.S.-Thailand alliance?

The security dimension is one of the strongest components of the alliance relationship and has endured through numerous changes of government in both countries. A new government per se is unlikely to alter the alliance. However, moving forward will require more than just military cooperation; it also will require high-level political dialogue on the meaning and direction of relations. This is all the more important in the changing Asian security environment of rising powers and an increasing number of nontraditional security threats. If the election ushers in greater political stability in Thailand, it will facilitate that critical dialogue.

Tim Cook is a Senior Project Director at NBR.