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KHON KAEN – A ripple went through the crowd as the rock infused campaign song “Pheu Thai Party – Our Hearts for You” blasted through the rally venue last week in Khon Kaen. More than 5,000 people clapped and danced away as they awaited local candidates and the party’s prime ministerial nominee Sudarat Keyuraphan to take the stage.

“I came here today because I love this party,” said Mayuri Chumwong, a 45-year-old flower breeder from Khon Kaen who had brought along her family. “I will vote for them again, just like I did before.”

After almost five years of banned political activity under military rule, the Pheu Thai Party still commands a loyal following in the region. At the event on March 1, most in the crowd were older, long-time party supporters and members of the Red Shirt movement. Remarkable was the absence of young, first-time voters.

Party candidates took the crowd of thousands as a clear sign that Pheu Thai will rule at the ballot box in the Northeast despite the uneven playing field on which this contest is being fought.

Loyal to the party

Like many at the rally, Ms. Mayuri has in every election since 2001 been supporting Pheu Thai and its predecessor parties, all part of the political movement of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“All my neighbors vote for the Pheu Thai Party because it’s known to deliver on policy promises,” she said.

“The party cares much about the bread-and-butters issues of grassroots people. They make sure we have money to spend,” said Mayuri Chumwong at the event last Friday. (Photo credit: Visarut Sankham)

Sakul Samranbanrung, a 67-year-old farmer in Khon Kaen City, supports the party because of its agricultural policies.

“I want Pheu Thai to return as a government so that we’ll have more money in our pockets,” Ms. Sakul said, especially the rice pledging scheme initiated by the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011 did much to improve her family’s economic standing.

The rice scheme, though popular with farmers, was riddled with problems. In 2017, the supreme court found Yingluck guilty of negligence and sentenced her to five years in prison. The former prime minister fled the country before the verdict and remains in exile.

Others in the crowd traced their support back to the universal health care system introduced in 2002 by the Thai Rak Party (TRT), a predecessor Pheu Thai. The party was dissolved in 2007 after the military ousted its leader and prime minister Thaksin in coup in 2006.

“The universal health care policy really made me love the party,” said Im Sriwat, a 61-year-old resident of Khon Kaen’s Kranuan District. She recalled that the universal health care policy enabled her to receive medical treatment she would not otherwise been able to afford.

A colourful crowd of more than 5,000 people clapped and danced to the party’s campaign song “Pheu Thai Party – Our Hearts for You” and cheered as candidates delivered speeches at a rally in Khon Kaen on March 1. (Photo credit: Visarut Sankham)

Promising prosperity in Isaan

Aware of her voters’ party loyalty and their appetite for economic policies, prime ministerial candidate Sudarat talked on stage about a broad range of topics, but focused most on  —  what the audience wanted to hear: solutions to agricultural prices, access to loans, debt management, and livelihood issues.

The crowd cheered as Sudarat promised to bring prosperity to Isaan by solving the widespread problem of private debt and by giving support to farmers.

“If we get back into government, it will be our goal to turn Isaan into a  region producing ‘clean’ food to be exported worldwide,” she told the crowd.

In contrast to the flurry of policy proposals since the campaign period started in December, Pheu Thai has yet to announce specific policies. Party strategists seem to bank on public trust in Pheu Thai’s ability to deliver promises compared to its political rivals.

Sudarat Keyuraphan, is one of three prime ministerial candidates nominated by Pheu Thai Party. Last week, the veteran politician supported candidates in Khon Kaen’s Constituency 2. (Photo credit: Visarut Sankham)

Uncertainty over young voters

It is difficult to predict the possibility of another a landslide victory for the party in Khon Kaen because of the large number of first-time voters, said Chakarin Pattanadamrongjit, a four-term MP for Pheu Thai and a candidate in the province’s Constituency 1.

“The new generation has their own ways of thinking. It’s hard to know what party they will choose,” Mr. Chakarin said.

It is estimated that there are about five million first-time voters of the total number of eligible voters which stands at around 50 million.

Yet, while there is uncertainty over young voters’ preferences, candidates have high hopes for support from the Red Shirt movement. Despite reports of internal conflicts, Adisorn Piangket, a red shirt leader, said the movement continues to support Pheu Thai.

“The red shirts won’t go away and won’t quit until the end,” Adisorn said.

The former Pheu Thai MP and cabinet minister believes that the party will win the election for sure. People in Isaan have rejected military-drafted constitutions twice and have shown their support for democratic rule, he argued.

In the 2007 constitution referendum more than 60% of northeasteners voted against the draft. Country-wide the approval rate stood at 58%. In 2016, another constitution draft passed with voter support of 60%. In the Northeast, 48% rejected the draft.

“I can’t say if we will win or not but I want to invite all people to come out and vote for whatever party they prefer,” Chakarin Pattanadamrongjit said. “After 4 or 5 years under undemocratic rule, people know well what party to vote into government.” (Photo credit: Visarut Sankham)

Ready to form strong opposition

Despite Pheu Thai’s hopes for an electoral victory, the 2017 constitution and the new election laws passed by the military junta’s appointed legislative body have created an uneven playing field in this election, Mrs. Sudarat argued.

Ironically, under the constitution, a party forming a coalition making up a majority in the House of Representatives may not be able to form a government as is its right if just 25% of the house joined by the senate can name the prime minister. Under that scenario, the majority in the house would become the opposition.

“Especially, the rule that 250 senators appointed by the junta can elect a prime minister is making this election unfair and unjust,” Mrs. Sudarat said. “The people probably won’t accept this.”

Without the junta’s special legal powers, such a government won’t stand the pressure from an elected opposition in the parliament, Mrs. Sudarat argued.

But if the junta’s proxy party Palang Pracharat Party succeeds in forming a government with General Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister,” she said, “it won’t last long.

When asked how the Pheu Thai would respond if a minority of the house backs Gen. Prayuth’s bid to become prime minister, she said “here will be a strong opposition.”

“They will see how that’s gonna turn out for them,” Mrs. Sudarat said smiling. “Let them just try.”