The contest between the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest and the relatively new Palang Pracharat Party in the southern provinces of Chumphon and Songkhla, both working together in government, is bound to raise political tensions. In recent days, Democrat Party leader and Minister of Commerce Jurin Laksanawisit, in Songkhla, described his party as the ‘spirit of democracy’ in Thailand and warned of equating political strength with wealth while Palang Pracharat leader, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan promised voters in Chumphon a stronger economy, a commitment to the monarchy and a fight against inequality when he led a high powered delegation there in the heat of the campaign ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Thailand goes to the polls over the next two weeks with three by-elections, two in Southern Thailand on Sunday and one in Bangkok on January 30th next, being seen as some indicator of the political will of the country. It comes with the COVID-19 emergency on a knife-edge and the economy facing a challenging situation with raised food and store prices. Most experts agree that, while tension is growing within the coalition, it will complete its term meaning that a General Election is now more likely in early 2023.
As Thailand battles its way through Omicron with normally cautious public officials making positive noises, the kingdom is in the midst of a series of bye-elections, two taking place next Sunday, January 16th in the southern provinces of Songkhla and Chumphon.
The third by-election in Bangkok’s Constituency 9 will take place two weeks later on Sunday, January 30th.
The mini-polls are coming as the kingdom’s population is increasingly less preoccupied with the COVID-19 virus situation despite a possible Omicron surge but increasingly concerned instead by a ratcheting up of food prices in the last week, something which has quickly gripped the public’s imagination.
Food vendors in Bangkok hike prices for dishes as rising food prices bite ordinary people where it hurts
In Bangkok this week many food vendors marked up the normal price of ฿80 for a food dish to ฿90 as the real economy copes with yet another challenge.
The problem partly stems from a range of price pressures predicted towards the end of last year including a sharp spike in energy prices as the world economy picks up steam, inflation in the United States and a range of supply chain bottlenecks caused by the ongoing virus emergency.
Some of these are particularly linked to draconian measures being taken in China which maintains its uncompromising zero COVID-19 policy.
Inflationary fears for Thailand are more muted than in the United States but planners should prepare
However, the problem this week in Thailand has become more immediate with an African Swine Flu outbreak confirmed in the central provinces of Nakhon Pathom and Ratchaburi.
African Swine Flu confirmed in Nakhon Pathom and Ratchaburi but poses no danger to human health
On Tuesday, this week, the Livestock Development Department of the Ministry of Agriculture confirmed that it was reporting Thailand as a country where the deadly livestock disease had been detected to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
It comes as both Latvia and Italy have reported similar outbreaks.
African Swine Flu is a highly contagious and lethal disease that spreads amongst pigs.
It does not, however, pose a risk to human health as it cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans. It is also not considered a food safety risk.
The confirmation of the outbreak, with six farms in Ratchaburi and two abattoirs in Nakhon Pathom detecting the disease from blood samples on January 8th and 9th, came in the aftermath of a surge in pork prices in wholesale markets around Thailand.
Rising pork prices also caused by small pig farmers getting out of the industry over the past 2 years
The price spike has also been attributed to farmers, especially small landholders, turning their backs on pig rearing over the last two years when the pandemic had earlier seen market prices collapse while higher regulatory standards and feed costs have added to the misery of small pig producers across the kingdom.
The price of pork, a key part of local dishes sold at food stalls throughout Thailand surged from ฿150 per kg to ฿200 during the week.
This has come at the same time as rising prices for all foodstuffs within the wholesale system caused by pressures from last year. This is beginning to translate into higher prices in stores for ordinary Thai people with many families having already lost a sizable proportion of their income since 2020.
It is also coming at a time when the economy is failing to perform and move forward as the government has adopted a cautious stance in the face of the Omicron virus strain with uncertainty also in the global market with fears for both the US and Chinese economies.
It will be early 2023 before the economy begins to recover in earnest says an independent expert
This week, Nonarit Bisonyabut, a researcher with the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) predicted that it will take at least until the first quarter of 2023 before the economy begins to substantially move forward again.
‘The economy isn’t recovering from the pandemic and it is being pressured by the swine disease outbreak, which has raised the prices of several goods. It’s the government’s responsibility to help people survive,’ he said.
This is despite the forecasted GDP gain of 3.4% for 2022 by the Bank of Thailand late last year which was made conditional on no further public health measures being announced in response to the Omicron strain of COVID-19.
This week, the bank put its updated position more equivocally when it appeared to confirm that the current inflationary pressures may be transitory with a forecast for 2022 inflation of 1.7%.
Bank of Thailand concerned about the impact of foreign tourism losses on rising unemployed numbers
However, it also warned that it was concerned about the effects on income deprived workers and labour within the foreign tourism industry and allied sectors which have again been cut off from their mainstream market by the government’s decision to suspend the popular Test and Go entry regime for visitors on December 21st, a move confirmed last week as being indefinite.
The bank, in recent days, warned that a current unemployed labour force may swell from 700,000 to 2 million.
It warned that the impact of higher food and store prices may be more disproportionately felt by this segment of the population.
Rivalry in the South between Palang Pracharat Party and the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest
Back at the hustings in the by-election campaigns, there are rising tensions within the coalition government particularly between the ruling Palang Pracharat Party and Thailand’s oldest party, the Democrat Party.
Currently, the Democrat Party holds the posts of Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Commerce in the government which are the two government departments in the hot seat over the rising issue of food prices and the African Swine flu outbreak which is taking hold on public thinking.
Senior opposition figure says the government will scrape through until 2023 albeit with raised tensions
This week, the Pheu Thai Party MP for Maha Sarakham and the chief whip for the opposition in the House of Representatives, Sutin Klungsang, warned that the rising issue of food prices and inflation may erode further confidence in the government and also increase tension among coalition partners.
However, he still forecasts that the government will complete its full term in office meaning that a General Election may be less likely this year.
An election must, at the same time, take place before March 2023 meaning that every move by government ministers and every political comment now takes on an increased significance as the political parties get ready to do battle for power.
‘Public confidence is dropping due to the higher cost of living. People may not endure and the government may leave before completing its term. Coalition partners may pressure each other, disrupting the work of parliament and creating disunity,’ Mr Sutin explained. ‘Injustice and freedom also matter but the cost of living is the factor that can drain public confidence.’
Palang Pracharat Party has a good track record in by-elections so far, critics say it has exploited its position
The by-election polls come as the Palang Pracharat Party has had a strong record in winning such contests since 2019 despite anti-government protests in Bangkok.
This has been pointed to by government supporters and even objective analysts as indicating that a large proportion of people at a grassroots level in Thailand support the coalition although polls consistently show 35% to 40% support.
Protests rumble on with raised stakes as the virus undermines fragile public confidence even further as fears grow
However, critics of the government party suggest that the government may have exploited its position in past by-elections to give its candidates the edge.
There is also concern that the continued tenure of Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha since 2014 has limited the horizon when it comes to political leadership and alternatives.
Shinawatra family is seen as the opposition, a sign that Thailand’s new democracy is not embedded
The Shinawatra family is still effectively seen in Thailand as the alternative to the current administration despite the return to democracy in 2019 and the arrival of such parties as the Bhumjaithai Party and the Move Forward Party.
This is a sign of a weak democracy which has not yet been fully embedded into the psyche of the nation.
This, of course, is vigorously denied by the Palang Pracharat Party and its leadership.
The fragility of the current democratic establishment in the kingdom was in evidence this week when both the Prime Minister and a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence General Kongcheep Tantravanich were forced to clarify the army’s neutrality in the upcoming polls.
Complaint from the Democrat Party in Chumphon
This came after a complaint was lodged by the Democrat Party last week in Chumphon which alleged defence forces personnel were interfering in preparations for campaigning.
The army chief, General Narongphan Jitkaewtae, ordered the Army Region commander Lieutenant General Kriangkrai Srilak to launch a probe into the complaint.
In Bangkok’s Constituency 9, in recent days, there have been suggestions that the population in army residential areas have been encouraged to vote for a government candidate.
This has been countered robustly by top brass who have pledged neutrality but have also emphasised the idea that army personnel should also participate in the election while giving equal access to all parties to make their case to this part of the electorate.
Strong Palang Pracharat Party presence in Chumphon as the ruling party puts its best foot forward
In Chumphon this week, there was a strong Palang Pracharat Party presence and hectic campaigning in support of its candidate Mr Chavalit Arjarn also known as ‘Lawyer Daeng’.
Those campaigning there included the party leader Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy Minister of Finance Santi Prompat and the controversial Secretary-general of the Palang Pracharat Party, Thamanat Prompow.
The party has been campaigning on a platform of upholding the constitution with the King as Head of State, strong economic development for the region and a commitment to fighting inequality.
The issue of inequality seems to be high on the agenda for all parties.
The Palang Pracharat Party is presenting voters with what it sees as a practical platform based on traditional values and a promise to get things done.
Democrat Party leader Jurin presents his party as the ‘spirit of democracy’ in Thailand and warns about equating wealth with political power
Campaigning in Songkhla this week, Minister of Commerce Jurin Laksanawisit and Democrat Party leader since 2019, struck a different tone.
He underlined the long track record of the Democrat Party in upholding democracy in Thailand and not being about any one person.
Mr Jurin emphasised also that his was not just a party led by rich people where those that earned the most assumed they had the right to lead.
‘The Democratic Party is not an ad hoc political party. The Democratic Party was set up to help the Thai people in the whole country for a long time. Because democracy was not set up to support any one person. A person powerful enough that they are liberated from responsibilities and leave the villagers following behind,’ he said.
Politics must not be simply the pursuit of the rich
He warned that the bye-elections were about choosing national representatives who would sit in the House of Representatives.
He called on voters to support what he called the ‘spirit of democracy’ and not let politics simply be the pursuit of the rich.
If not, he said he feared that ‘the House of Representatives will only become a platform for the rich. The poor will not have the opportunity, the smart person will not have the opportunity.’
Bangkok by-election in two weeks time is another political struggle caused by the removal of high profile MP Sira Jenjaka by the Constitutional Court
On January 30th in Bangkok, the by-election will be somewhat different with the Democrat Party withdrawing from the field on a matter of ethics and principle in a strategic move seen as less than helpful to the Palang Pracharat Party.
The seat has become vacant after Sira Jenjaka, the fiery Palang Pracharat Party MP was stripped of his seat by the Constitutional Court last year after it found he had been convicted of fraud in 1995 and therefore was ineligible.
Southern MPs jailed for insurrection in 2014
The two other seats in Chumphon and Songkhla were left vacant after its former MPs were jailed in 2021 for their part in the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protests in 2014 which led to the coup that year and which the court deemed as insurrection.
Both Thavorn Senniam, a Democrat MP and former Deputy Minister of Transport from 2019 to 2021 and Chumpol Julsai another Democrat Party MP for Chumphon lost their seats when the Constitutional Court ruled against them in December last year after they were both jailed on February 24th last but later bailed.
Many observers consider that the government will have less of an advantage in the Bangkok by-election where the two main candidates are seen as Saranrat Jenjaka, the wife of the deposed MP and the Pheu Thai Party candidate Surachart Thienthong who held the seat in the 2011 General Election and only lost by a margin of fewer than 3,000 votes or 10% of the poll to Sira Jenjaka in 2019.