- Isan:Double Trouble
"Khao ao ngoen phai, ka lueak Pheu Thai khue kao" [It doesn't matter whose money they take, they will vote for Pheu Thai like before], a concession stand owner on campus told the author two days after the Palang Pracharat Party had held a mass rally at Ubon Ratchathani University—an unprecedented opportunity for any Thai political party. She had attended the rally, for which village-level coordinators had arranged transportation and collated the names of attendees. Upon being asked by the author whether the attendees would get paid, the concession stand owner merely smiled and said that she did not know. Instead of pressing for an answer, the author decided to wait anxiously for election day to find out whether the lady was right about Pheu Thai's prospects.
For almost 20 years, Thailand's Northeast region (Isan) has strongly supported the Pheu Thai Party and its precursor parties closely associated with former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra. The region is also the bastion of the Red Shirt movement, a loose-knit, self-proclaimed "pro-democracy" alliance which staged large mass protests against the unelected government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2009 and 2010. Since the Shinawatras and the Red Shirt movement were closely linked, the Northeast is viewed by the military and the Bangkok elite as "double trouble". Following the 2014 military coup, the region was a major focus for the suppression of dissidents: some were [End Page 183] jailed, some were forced into exile and some died mysteriously.1 Isan remains a dangerous political hotbed—very much as it was during the Cold War, when it was a stronghold of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT).
On 17 and 24 March 2019, the author observed Thailand's much-anticipated general elections. On 17 March, the advance voting day, nearly 7,000 voters braved the scorching heat and queued for two to three hours at the polling stations in Warin Chamrap District Office.2 The majority of them were young and enthusiastic. However, on 24 March, the main voting day, the mood had turned much gloomier. Few locals showed up to witness the votes being counted. Unlike in previous elections when vote counting was an adrenaline-filled episode, this time the witnesses' emotions were subdued. The unsettled atmosphere foreshadowed a troubled aftermath.
From the outset of the 2019 election campaign, the author found it quite difficult to get a sense of the possible outcome as people in Isan were extremely reluctant to talk. We now know why. As it turns out, nearly half of Isan's voters voted for anti-junta parties, with Pheu Thai and Future Forward together garnering 49 per cent of the total vote in the entire region.3 In contrast, the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party only gained 21 per cent of the popular vote. The results reflect the region's resistance to the ruling junta and its refusal to be co-opted by the junta's handouts. But did the junta's small margin of success in securing the popular vote suggest that anti-military sentiment was on the decline in Isan? This question is not easy to answer, especially given that these elections were far from free and fair: the junta not only created a proxy party but also exploited state resources to its own electoral advantage and intimidated anti-junta opponents.
In November 2018, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) redrew the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies across the whole country, reducing the total number of constituencies from 375 to 350.4 While the ECT claimed to have used fair criteria in dividing the constituencies, anti-junta candidates complained of gerrymandering, especially since the pro-Thaksin region of Isan lost ten constituencies, reducing its total from 126 seats to 116.5
In Isan, Pheu Thai fielded candidates in 112 out of the 116 constituencies, while its sister party, Thai Raksa Chart, ran 52 candidates.6 It was the first time Pheu Thai did not run in every Isan constituency. Thai Raksa Chart generally ran in constituencies where Pheu Thai candidates were either not the favourites to win, or could expect to...