Thailand’s Populist Overhaul: Revamping the Discredited Establishment

Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand is undergoing a populist overhaul to revamp its political system, which has been criticized for its ineffectiveness, corruption, and lack of responsiveness to the needs of the people. The country’s political history has been marked by instability and upheaval, with numerous military coups, protests, and government changes. The root of this turmoil is a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the political establishment, which many Thais view as out of touch with everyday life.

The United States and other Western democracies have expressed support for democracy and political reform, but neighbouring countries like China may view these developments with caution, as they could potentially disrupt regional stability. As Thailand’s populist overhaul unfolds, the future of the country’s political landscape remains uncertain, but a significant portion of the population is demanding change and a more responsive government. The challenge of implementing these changes remains daunting, and Thailand is at a crossroads as it embarks on a journey to redefine its political identity and reclaim the trust of its citizens.

Thailand’s Pheu Thai, a populist party linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is back in power for the first time since being ejected from office in a military coup in 2014. The party was initially backed by Move Forward, which brought together a diverse coalition of parties to support a parliamentary vote to appoint its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, as prime minister.

Skepticism arose about conservatives blocking Pita’s appointment, leading to speculation about the time it would take for Pheu Thai to remove Move Forward and install its own MP as head of government. After two unsuccessful attempts, Pheu Thai broke ties with Move Forward and accepted military-linked parties’ support for property tycoon and Pheu Thai MP Srettha Thavisin as prime minister.

The agreement allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand to serve out a reduced sentence for a corruption conviction slapped on him after the 2006 coup. Pheu Thai has taken a big political risk, with surveys suggesting that the public is cool on its alliance with the remnants of the junta government. A national survey by the National Institute of Development Administration found that almost two-thirds of respondents opposed the idea of including junta-backed parties in its coalition.

Srettha plans to use cash transfers and subsidy programs to dissuade voters from Pheu Thai’s offer of political support to pro-junta parties, despite their rejection at the May election. However, this approach will increase tension with conservatives who have criticized Pheu Thai’s policy design and public finance, which led to coups in 2006 and 2014.

Thailand’s government, led by Prime Minister Srettha, is expected to face internal infighting over economic and social policies and its ambitions to appease pro-democracy voters with institutional reforms. The fragmented 11-party parliamentary coalition underpinning it has led to speculation about the potential for its collapse.

The Thai situation is similar to Malaysia, where Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim governs in coalition with the UMNO, a cornerstone of the old Barisan Nasional regime. Anwar can endure the ire of voters disappointed by his soft-pedalling of reforms, as his government doesn’t face any threat on its progressive flank but rather from the racist and Islamist right.

Srettha’s pro-reform party, Move Forward, is expected to gain support from voters disillusioned with Pheu Thai. A by-election in Thailand’s south saw Move Forward’s thwarted candidate, Pita Limjaroenrat, resign, allowing another MP to lead the opposition. Thailand’s stability depends on how the government handles the pro-democratic opposition, which spans the country’s geographic and class divides. The government’s incentive to crack down on Move Forward will increase as the constitutional expiry of the Senate’s role in a prime minister appointment in 2024, giving Move Forward another chance at the premiership.

The current populist overhaul in Thailand, rooted in the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra, has seen a shift in political leadership. Thaksin’s policies, such as universal healthcare and agricultural subsidies, gained widespread support among rural and working-class Thais, but his government was also criticized for corruption and authoritarianism. Despite these issues, Thaksin’s populism set a precedent for future leaders, who have since sought to use it to win elections and maintain power.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a billionaire businessman and founder of the Future Forward Party, has gained significant support among the youth and urban middle class. His platform advocates for greater political transparency, democratic reforms, and economic redistribution. Though Future Forward was disbanded in 2020, Thanathorn’s influence remains strong.

One of the central tenets of the populist overhaul is a push for constitutional change, as critics argue that Thailand’s current constitution is undemocratic and designed to perpetuate the influence of the military and traditional elites. The populist movement seeks to rewrite the constitution to establish a more inclusive and representative political system.

The populist overhaul is seen as necessary to break the establishment’s stranglehold and empower ordinary citizens. The Thai military’s stance on the populist movement and potential constitutional changes will play a crucial role in the outcome of this overhaul.

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