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Thailand Elections 2023: Policy Continuity Will Remain Amid the Potential for Political Change or Gridlock  

24 Apr Thailand Elections 2023: Policy Continuity Will Remain Amid the Potential for Political Change or Gridlock  

As Thai voters prepare to head to the polls in early May, speculations arise over whether the military-backed incumbents can retain power, or if a potential comeback is on the cards for the opposition Pheu Thai Party. With new political figures potentially taking the reins, questions emerge over the continuity of the country’s political system and long-term policies. Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn, Chairman of Thailand’s Security Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister, shared his thoughts on these topics at a talk organized by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) on April 12, 2023.   

Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of SIIA, served as the moderator for the session. 

 

Pressing Issues for Voters 

Dr. Wattanayagorn began by presenting an overview of the most pressing issues for voters heading into the election. Amid an atmosphere of continued recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, welfare and economic issues are understandably at the top of the list for voters, with the elderly population worried about welfare while those of working ages concerned about the job market. Campaign pledges include proposals that respond to these concerns such as increasing the minimum wage, providing social and healthcare support, and reducing income taxes.  

Political reform is another issue that animates voters, especially among youth and pro-democracy activists who have grown increasingly frustrated and distrustful of the establishment and status quo. Dr. Wattanayagorn also noted that there is a desire among the people to reduce corruption and make Thai politics cleaner. 

 

Changes to the Electoral System 

The 2021 constitutional amendments reintroduced a parallel voting system to Thailand’s elections. 400 seats will be filled by those who win the most votes in each constituency. Another 100 seats will be decided by a proportional representation party list, down from 150 seats in 2019. Votes for the local constituencies and party list are separate; thus, citizens will vote twice, with each vote independent from the other. 

Such a change is deemed to allow voters a greater amount of choice as they can potentially split their vote between a preferred candidate and a different party. However, the reduction in party list seats enables big parties to do better than before, therefore reducing the ability of smaller parties to be represented in Parliament. 

Conversely, the increased number of single-member constituencies confers greater influence on party factions who control district-level politics. These are grassroots political groups who have been working with local voters for years and have created a substantial connection by helping to fund children’s education, going to funerals, and clearing tickets with the police. Such populist tendencies and electoral handouts have been quite commonplace and salient in the recent years of Thai politics. 

The electoral changes, along with the introduction rules that outline what is permitted, are perceived by Dr. Wattanayagorn and other academics to have created a more stable and structured system.  

While more systematic, the election will nevertheless remain dynamic. Dr. Wattanayagorn identified voters aged 40 and older as the demographic who will decide the election because they often only decide their vote a few days before polling day, thus allowing campaigners to persuade such voters to switch alliances depending on platforms or proposals. The potential for late swings in momentum is just one source of unpredictability in this election.  

 

Coalition 

Dr. Wattanayagorn noted that a coalition government will need to be formed after the election. With the polls evenly matched, many are concerned over the possibility of gridlock wherein a coalition government is unable to be formed in a timely manner. He then shared that parties have begun to preliminarily discuss coalition building, representing a willingness between them to work together. Nonetheless, if there is gridlock, the decision on who to elect as Prime Minister goes to the junta-appointed Senate. 

 

Implication for Policy Continuity 

With electoral uncertainty, many international observers have been concerned over whether policy continuity will persist given the scenario where the opposition party gains power.  

However, Dr. Wattanayagorn reassured that a degree of continuity on foreign policy and domestic economic plans can be expected in the aftermath of the election, as important long-term plans and policies have been instituted into laws, which cannot be changed no matter which party is in power. These include foreign policies relating to ASEAN and masterplans such as the Eastern Economic Corridor.