Bangkok, Thailand – The populist Pheu Thai Party – this time under Paetongtarn Shinawatra – looks set to dominate Sunday’s election in Thailand, but crucial to its success will be whether the party can retain its appeal in its traditional heartland in the country’s north.
The party founded by Thaksin Shinawatra in 1998 as Thai Rak Thai has won the most seats at every election held in Thailand this century.
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Its leader Paetongtarn, better known as Ung Ing, is the 36-year-old daughter of Thaksin and the niece of Yingluck Shinawatra, another former Pheu Thai prime minister who, like Thaksin, was removed in a coup.
But as the party comes under pressure from the progressive Move Forward Party, it is having to fight for every constituency, even in the north.
“People in the north voted for Thaksin, and his sister, and now his daughter largely for identity reasons,” Joel Selway from Brigham Young University, a researcher of Thai politics, told Al Jazeera.
Polling in Thailand is unreliable, but a recent survey from Nation TV put Pheu Thai at 38.5 percent across the country. Due to the country’s mixed electoral system, which combines 400 first-past-the-post constituencies and 100 party-list seats, that could translate into 288 seats in the 500-seat lower chamber.
Thaksin, a native of the Chiang Mai suburb of San Kamphaeng, first came to power in a landslide in 2001. His party won 28 out of the 33 single-seat constituencies that were up for grabs in the upper north, which includes Chiang Mai as well as the city of Chiang Rai and the surrounding area.
And after he was removed in a coup in 2006, the family’s appeal only increased. At the time, some even saw the prime minister and telecoms tycoon as the reincarnation of an 18th-century king known as Taksin.
The so-called Red Shirt movement further deepened support for Thaksin’s brand of politics, and in the 2011 election, the north overwhelmingly backed his sister Yingluck (her government was overthrown in a 2014 coup).
In the 2019 election, Pheu Thai won more than 77 percent of the votes in the upper north region, according to calculations by Chanintorn Pensute, a political scientist from Chiang Mai University. Nearly all of its 136 constituency seats came from the north and northeast, with the party winning only one seat south of Bangkok.
The Shinawatras tap into a deep if muted regional pride. The northern Lanna kingdom was annexed to Siam – as Thailand was then known – in 1899 but continued to retain some autonomy until 1939. Its different language, alphabet, and culture all remain points of pride for the local population.
The family has never openly embraced local regionalism, perhaps for fear of upsetting voters in other parts of Thailand, but they have become heroes for many in a region that has long felt alienated from Bangkok. Thaksin’s policies too – providing support in areas such as education and healthcare – resonated with people who were less well-off than the traditional elites who had long dominated Thai politics.
Still, with a third Shinawatra at the helm, this time Pheu Thai appears to be facing a tougher than expected challenge to hold the north.
The latest Nation TV poll gives the party 48.5 percent of votes in the upper north, 10 points more than the national average, but 7.5 points less than in early April. Nationwide and in the upper north, polls show voters now prefer Pita Limjaroenrat of Move Forward over Ung Ing as the next prime minister.
Chiang Mai University’s Chanintorn cautions that Pheu Thai can no longer count on automatic support in the region. While relatively few candidates from Move Forward speak in the northern language during campaign events, she notes there appears to be a generational gap with older people remaining loyal to Thaksin.
“A lot of people remember that during the Thaksin era, economy was doing better, whether it was luck or policies, and they are looking forward to that again. But some are really fed up with the flawed democracy system, they would love to see a proper democracy going on without coup d’états,” Chanintorn told Al Jazeera.
To many pro-democracy voters in Chiang Mai, Move Forward comes across as more determined to push through change.
It was the only party to send its prime minister candidate – Pita – to a debate in Chiang Mai on April 30.
And while many remember Thaksin fondly, the nomination of his daughter as the party head and prime minister candidate has been met with more mixed reactions. And she still faces competition for the potential Pheu Thai premiership from real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin.
“Ung Ing is not skill-less. She is a semi-celebrity when she rallies up in the north and she speaks in the local language. The people react excitedly to that. But that’s a legacy of her father in some ways,” Selway said.
Move Forward is currently expected to win 110 seats nationwide on May 14. But it increasingly sees the upper north as winnable territory.
“I saw many voters that used to really devote themselves to Pheu Thai change their minds towards Move Forward,” Chanintorn said. She predicts that Move Forward can take two of the 10 seats in Chiang Mai province.
One reason might be Pheu Thai’s political caution.
Kyoto University’s Pavin Chachavalpongpun says that even as parties focus their campaigns on economic issues, voters are hankering after the deeper institutional change.
Mass protests of 2020-21 might have died down, but many voters would like to see the reform of Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws, which criminalise criticism of the monarchy. The vaguely-worded Article 112 carries a penalty of 15 years in jail and rights groups say it has been used to punish political activism.
Pavin himself is a political refugee in Japan as a result of his vocal criticism of the monarchy.
“Even though they may not talk about the reform of the monarchy as an institution, but at least there has to be a question on Article 112 during the public debates,” Pavin stresses.
He says that Ung Ing has avoided taking a strong stance on the issue, which remains hugely sensitive in Thailand. Move Forward has been the only main party to openly back the reform of Article 112, although it has watered down its stand recently, perhaps to facilitate coalition-building.
While Ung Ing said last month that she did not like coups “especially the last two”, speculation continues that she might be willing to form a coalition with a military-linked party.
After all, who eventually becomes prime minister is decided not only by the popular vote, but by the preferences of the country’s 250 military-appointed senators.
Thaksin himself, who lives in exile overseas after being convicted of abuse of power in a trial critics say was politically motivated, has also been campaigning via social media.
Eyeing a return to his homeland – perhaps by July – he too appears to be looking for compromise.
“Since Thaksin became active in the campaign by appearing weekly on Clubhouse, he made his position quite clear – he would rather reconcile with the institution rather than challenge it,” Pavin said. “They understand what the younger generation wants. But then again, they are not willing to deliver that.”