- Upper South:Toppling Poles
A time-tested truism holds that, even if the Democrat Party put electricity poles up for office, the voters in the Upper South of Thailand would still elect them.1 The 24 March 2019 polls called that truism into question. As the Upper South has represented a crucial Democrat electoral bailiwick, the results of those polls have implications that transcend the region. They force us to confront the possibility of a significant change in the way that the provinces of Thailand's Upper South figure on the national political landscape.2
In the Thai elections of July 2011—the last successfully completed national polls before those of March 2019—voters in the region's 11 provinces chose members of the lower house of parliament to represent 42 constituencies.3 In apparent confirmation of loyalty to the party among voters in the Upper South, especially during the past three decades, Democrat Party candidates took 41 of these seats. This result, and the record of deeply entrenched regional loyalty to the party, meant that the Democrats, rather than the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta or its Palang Pracharat Party, entered the 2019 campaign season as the de facto incumbents in the region.
On 24 March—with a total of 3,690,782 votes cast in the region, 10.39 per cent of the nationwide total—the Democrats only managed to hold onto 21 of the 39 constituencies in those same 11 provinces. Out of the remaining 18 seats, the Action Coalition for Thailand Party (ACT) captured one, Bhumjaithai seven and Palang Pracharat ten.4 Electricity poles had fallen. But how, and why? [End Page 199]
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The ACT did not prove the threat to the Democrats in the Upper South that outside observers had anticipated. The party's de facto founder and leader, former Democrat secretary-general and Surat Thani Member of Parliament (MP) Suthep Thaugsuban, had led the protests of the People's Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State (PDRC) against the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok during the tumultuous 2013–14 period. The presence of demonstrators from the Upper South was one of the defining features of those protests. But neither Suthep's network of contacts, nor his success in mobilizing Southern protestors half a decade earlier, was of much consequence by 2019. Although the ACT came in second to the Democrats in three constituencies of Surat Thani Province and one constituency of Chumphon Province, the margins of its losses in those races were significant.
The ACT bested the Democrats only in Constituency 3 of Chumphon, where the chairman of the provincial administrative organization, Suphon Junsai, was its candidate. Suphon was the older brother and political client of a former Democrat MP and leading PDRC figure, Chumpol Junsai.5 Running again as a Democrat, Chumpol held Constituency 1 on 24 March. As an exception that proved the rule, the older brother's triumph highlighted the absence of a broader pattern in the Upper South of damaging defections from the Democrats to the ACT. Likewise, that the ACT proved a flop in a region that had previously shown such strong support for the ouster of Yingluck underlined the reality of a new political moment in Thailand.
Another feature of that moment is related to the status of the Democrats as the effective incumbent party in the Upper South, noted above. The relative wealth of the still largely agricultural region has historically rested on the production of commodities such as Pará rubber. In 2019, however, the depressed prices for rubber—which have declined over the past decade because of the sector's extreme dependence on the Chinese...