What the election outcome tells us
Nobody is happy. That probably sums up the feeling after Sunday’s general election, which was predictably dictated by the prolonged political divide rather than tax, education and cannabis promises.
Abhisit Vejjajiva had the most obvious reason to be upset, but the Pheu Thai alliance will also be dismayed by the questionable legitimacy of their self-declared victory. The other side, meanwhile, may look at the popular vote with some satisfaction but will be staring at a rocky political scene from now on.
For the first time ever, a pro-Shinawatra party failed to top both the “seats” and the “votes” table. Pheu Thai won the greatest number of constituency seats but dropped to second in the competition for votes. Its main opponent, the Phalang Pracharat Party, won the second-highest number of seats but gathered the most votes nationwide.
Understandably, both camps have declared victory. Pheu Thai is adamant the election confirmed its right to take power, which has been maintained against all odds. “Your rules say it’s the number of seats that counts and here we are. We played by your rules and we won,” was the party’s unspoken message as it forged ahead in efforts to form a new government.
Not so fast, said Phalang Pracharat. We are new and have been attacked left and right. We are labelled pro-dictatorship. Much of the Thai media does not like us. We have also been up against influential Western naysayers. And yet here we are, supported by more Thais than you.
Pheu Thai can justifiably claim that the dissolution of its sister party, Thai Raksa Chart, snatched away millions of votes from the camp. Phalang Pracharat could respond that the remarkable support it got as a new party in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, thrashing the Democrat Party in the process, must count for something.
Thais remain deeply divided. That’s the big picture emerging from the election figures and claims and counter-claims by Pheu Thai, Phalang Pracharat and their supporters. Spurred by fears that Thaksin Shinawatra could return, many life-long Democrat supporters played safe and turned against the party. Despite potentially explosive controversies deemed unhealthy for Thai norms, Pheu Thai still won the highest number of constituencies.
Phalang Pracharat represents one value and Pheu Thai another. They live under the same Constitution but, clearly, their treatment of certain important subjects is not the same. There are supporters of both parties who are sympathetic and understanding, but Pheu Thai, or its top echelon at least, has grown to represent one ideology, which Phalang Pracharat has vowed to oppose while promising to do a better job at it than the Democrats.
That’s why Abhisit was rejected by the voters and sent into early retirement. In a divided political climate where “extremes” sell, he tried to walk a tightrope of neutrality strung between them. His mistakes were to bet on a neutral “market” that was small, and be caught between two rival camps that were pushing him towards their enemies. This meant few voters considered his party a “safe” choice.
Election numbers sparked pride in the new star of Thai politics, Future Forward, but they will also force it rethink what Thais really want.
Voters embraced Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s message in huge numbers, but the party he shows contempt for received an even bigger share of the vote. The Future Forward leader has vowed to dismantle “all legacies of the junta”, but how he acknowledges the will of almost 8 million citizens who voted for Phalang Pracharat could represent his biggest challenge.
It’s reasonable to assume that a big chunk of pro-Future Forward votes came from first-time voters, many of whom liked Thanathorn’s youthful image as an alternative to old-guard politics. As a fresh face, he deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to past activities and current ideologies, but he would be making a big mistake if he thinks all his voters were driven by ideology and principle.
Of the top three parties in the election standings, Future Forward lies in the most peculiar place. Pheu Thai sells and will continue to sell the Shinawatras, while Phalang Pracharat is projecting itself as their main opposition. These “markets” rarely overlap and have prevented any newcomer from shining, but somehow Future Forward has managed to become the third-biggest force in the industry and threaten both leaders.
Days, probably weeks, of nasty horse-trading are now guaranteed. The greatest irony in this supposed ideological showdown is that the people who will decide the outcome are almost entirely unencumbered by ideology.
In fact, it may not have been totally accurate to state that nobody is happy. A few politicians currently lying bottom of the election table could be sitting pretty at the moment. Offers will be pouring in from the “ideological” winner, who may stop at nothing to get what they want.