Thaksin & Puea Thai: The Law of Diminishing Returns

cc Alisdare Hickson, modified,

Thais really do want to move forward, it seems. A recent opinion poll conducted by the King Prajadhipok Institute found that if an election were held today the opposition Move Forward Party would receive 208 seats. The party won the majority of seats in the election last year, but political maneuvering saw it blocked from forming government.

In August 2023, the Puea Thai Party with ties to former PM Thaksin Shinawatra instead formed a government with its erstwhile opponents, some of whom were directly responsible for the coup which ousted his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014. But Puea Thai has struggled to find itself, connect to voters or deliver on its electoral platform. The same poll left Pheu Thai with 105 seats, while Move Forward’s Pita Limjaroenrat, current MP and leader of the party in the May 2023 polls, stands well above as favored PM at 47%.

It took months for the PT-led government to pass a budget; its flagship ‘digital wallet’ consumer spending policy is being held up after bitter rows with the Bank of Thailand. The rest of PT’s electoral platform is now in the rearview with scant legislative victories to show for its 10 months in power. Thaksin, whose return from exile was seen as part of the political transformation, was recently formally charged by the Attorney General with violations under Article 112 of the lèse majesté law. This is said by some to indicate a fraying in the elite deal which brought Thaksin home.

The current case of Article 112 was brought by Senators aligned with junta General Prawit Wongsuwan. Gen Prawit is the only former junta member still active in politics as the leader of the Palangpracharat Party, which took 40 seats in the 2023 election. It is well known that Gen Prawit would like a shot at the PM seat and the 112 case can be seen as final shot at the throne. Thaksin has called him ‘an uncle in the jungle trying to cause chaos.’

The case can be interpreted as a means to keep Thaksin and PT close to the coalition and bring him down a notch after his recent tours of the provinces to drum up support from red shirts and provincial elites. The interesting part of the dust up is the behavior of Palangpracharat powerbroker Thammanat Prompao, Minister of Agriculture. Mr. Prompao controls many MPs in the party and has been with Thaksin in his tours of the North and has signaled he is agnostic of the recent row. Given the long relationship between Thaksin and Thammanat it wouldn’t be surprising to see Thammanat and many MPs from Palangpracharat return officially or as proxies to PT and ditch the now fading Prawit if his bid to take Thaksin down fails.

The above masks a primary reason for PT’s failure to make a comeback. The deal struck to bring Thaksin home was a poison pill. PT must remain close to the conservative elite who are deeply unpopular among the general population and the closer PT gets to them, the more distant and unpopular they will become.


Puea Thai Policies: Dead on Arrival

The PT government cannot find traction for its policies and the reason is straightforward. When Thaksin came to power in 2001 he picked up 1,000 Baht notes laying on the ground in plain sight. These were the policies he is still loved for today; 30 Baht universal health care, OTOP, one village one million Baht microcredit, among others. These were all universal, massive, and most importantly: one offs.

Since his rocketing to popularity on these successful policies, all Thaksin-backed governments have failed to replay the successes. Yingluck tried with the 1st time car buyer, 1st home buyer, and rice pledging policies, all of which failed to yield substantial social or economic benefits.

All of these policies were based on increasing consumer and government spending and debt, which is the same with the ‘digital wallet’ policy. There are two problems with this. Thailand’s private household debt levels are among the highest in the world at some 91% of GDP and since the junta took power in 2014 Thailand’s public debt has risen from roughly 40% of GDP to over 60% in just a decade.

Thailand does not need short-term stimulus or increases in debt; it needs deep structural reform of the economic and social systems to increase productivity, open new economic sectors, increase competition and innovation, and tackle corruption – military, political, and educational reforms. These problems are primary reasons leading Thailand’s economy to stagnate. Instead Srettha and Thaksin have opted for quick win ‘visa waivers’ and the launch of a ‘new and improved 30 Baht’ healthcare policy that went unnoticed in the latest attempt to revive old policies. Tired attempts at reviving populism are failing and will continue to fail.


Thaksin’s Response to Move Forward

The Move Forward Party is the only large left leaning reformist party in Thailand. MFP’s continued rise in popularity has pushed Thaksin and Puea Thai to their natural place on the right as a status quo party. Thaksin’s response to the lack of popularity has been to double down on old Thai politics of recruiting provincial families and power brokers to Puea Thai. Recently, he was in Korat to woo old school politician Suwat Liptapanlop and he has made similar trips to Rayong, Pathum Thani and others. The problem with this the law of diminishing returns. The space on the right and with powerful provincial families is limited with Bhumjaithai and the Democrats crowding the same field.

The move to old school Thai politics is a minority strategy that will not appeal the younger generation or the larger Thai populace who want reform and change as evidenced in the 2023 election. Some think this is Thaksin stuck in a time capsule, but this is not so. This is Thaksin 101. The old Thai Rak Thai government did the same between 2002 and 2005 bringing in many other parties and the method is being tried again.


Trends Going Forward

Thaksin and Puea Thai are not reformist or willing to challenge established centers of power in Thailand. Given their lack of appetite or will to tackle lingering problems, more black eyes will continue to appear such as the continuing saga of police infighting. However, unlike the police corruption drama, unseemly news will be blamed on the PT government rather than the previous one. As time passes towards the new election Thaksin’s star will continue to fade and so will Puea Thai. On the eve of what is predicted to be Move Forward’s dissolving and banning of its leaders, two things appear to be moving in unison. Move Forward will continue on in a new form and when the next election arrives they will be up against a weaker Thaksin and Puea Thai Party. The authors’ previous prediction still holds; the next election is Move Forward’s to lose, and the conservative elite will not change course from their current unpopular and disconnected trajectory.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author(s) alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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