Commentary: Pheu Thai wants a landslide win in the northeast. It faces a tough fight
Khon Kaen in Thailand’s northeast has traditionally been a stronghold for Pheu Thai, the country’s biggest opposition party. Now, however, a province-wide victory is looking less likely, says this ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute researcher.
SINGAPORE: Under a giant tent on a scorching hot day in Nam Phong District, Khon Kaen, a sea of vibrant red swarmed together for what seemed like an early victory celebration held by the Pheu Thai Party, just 25 days before the election on 14 May.
The country’s biggest opposition party is not just alive and well, but also more popular than ever, at least according to one shopkeeper at the rally who reported that shirts featuring the party’s logo that had been in stock since before the previous election were once again flying off the shelves. Khon Kaen in Thailand’s northeast is one of Pheu Thai’s traditional strongholds.
Cheers of excitement reverberated through the tent as Srettha Thavisin, a real estate mogul turned prime ministerial candidate, weaved through the crowd and took the stage. He was accompanied by Panthongtae Shinawatra, who stood in for his sister Paetongtarn, another prime ministerial candidate who was eight months pregnant.
The boom of the crowd’s roar intensified as Nattawut Saikua, a former Red Shirt leader, delivered a fiery speech that drove home the real message behind Pheu Thai’s policy to provide 10,000 baht (US$295) to every Thai over 16 years old via a digital wallet.
Nattawut asked the audience, “Would you accept money from other political parties?” The crowd responded with a resounding “yes,” without any hint of hesitation or embarrassment.
He then asked, “But would you vote for those parties?” The audience unanimously replied with a decisive “no.”
Finally, Nattawut dealt the final blow, alluding to the smaller offers of 500 baht to 1,000 baht offered by other parties, saying, “If you vote for Pheu Thai, you will receive 10,000 baht. Other parties’ cash handouts are just bonuses, and you are welcome to accept them.”
CLEAR-CUT VICTORY NOT CERTAIN
It is clear that in this northeastern stronghold, Pheu Thai’s promise to win the election by a landslide is well on its way to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The party’s commitment to implementing a 10,000 baht digital wallet policy, despite facing widespread criticism, is a critical component of this winning strategy. Nevertheless, a clear-cut victory for Pheu Thai is not yet certain.
In the previous election in 2019, Pheu Thai won eight out of 10 seats in Khon Kaen, losing one seat to the Future Forward Party and one seat to the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). The two MPs who won those seats have since defected from their parties to join the Bhumjaithai Party (BJT), a party in the ruling coalition. It is possible that Pheu Thai will once again struggle to win every seat in the province, which now has 11 seats, due to the presence of the BJT in the race.
Ekarat Changlao, who recently defected from the PPRP to BJT is running against Pheu Thai’s candidate, Mookda Pongsombat, in district 4. Ekarat is rumoured to have controlled the finances of PPRP’s northeastern candidates in the previous election.
Currently facing charges of embezzlement from Khon Kaen Teachers’ Savings Cooperative, Ekarat has developed a reputation for fighting political battles with money. With the BJT’s backing, Ekarat and his son, Wattana, an MP who also defected from the PPRP to run as a BJT candidate in district 2, are expected to put up a tough fight against Pheu Thai.
According to the leader of one of Pheu Thai’s campaign teams, Pheu Thai’s candidates have the upper hand over the BJT’s candidates because voters in Khon Kaen are traditionally inclined to support Pheu Thai on the basis of its party brand.
However, Pheu Thai’s candidates do not receive the same level of financial support as BJT’s candidates, nor do they receive this support in a timely manner. Both parties conduct internal polls to determine how much support to give each candidate on a rolling basis, but only the BJT is willing to go the extra mile. If the BJT injects its networks of local leaders and village-based health volunteers with cash in the final stretch of the campaign, Pheu Thai risks losing ground, at least on the constituency ballot.
BATTLE FOR YOUNG VOTERS
However, the real challenge for Pheu Thai, both nationally and in Khon Kaen, may come from the Move Forward Party (MFP, the de facto successor to the Future Forward Party). A candidate running under General Prayut’s newly formed United Thai Nation Party in Khon Kaen stated, “It’s impossible to convince the youth to drink anything but orange juice nowadays.” He was alluding to the MFP, which, with its bright orange logo, remains the default choice for many younger Thais who hope for more sweeping reforms of the current political system.
Many of these voters are registered to vote where their universities are located, which are usually in urban centres. Because most candidates running under the MFP’s banner are new faces and not relying on traditional vote-canvassing networks, it is difficult for their rivals to gauge their level of support and where it is located.
Furthermore, the party’s strategy of communicating with its supporters mainly and directly through social media has produced a political base that is committed to its ideology, circumventing the role of local leaders who are prone to change their loyalty in favour of the highest bidder.
“It’s like boxing with a ghost,” said the leader of Pheu Thai’s campaign team in one district of Khon Kaen. Like in district 1 in 2019, by the time Pheu Thai realises that the MFP has gained momentum, it could be too late.
Khon Kaen is hardly representative of the entire country. However, if the BJT or the MFP can win a few seats from Pheu Thai in the heart of the northeast, where Pheu Thai is believed to have the most support, then Pheu Thai’s promise of a landslide victory could remain a distant dream.
The upcoming weeks will be a test of Pheu Thai’s strength. Can it win the ground war against the BJT and "air" war (in social media) against the MFP?
Napon Jatusripitak is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a PhD Researcher at Northwestern University. This commentary first appeared on the Institute's blog, Fulcrum.