Thai ruling party wins first election held since lockdown

Support for opposition in north dwindling as pro-military party scoops up another seat

The ruling pro-military Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) scooped up another seat last Saturday in a by-election in northern Thailand, the first held since the country's partial lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Wattana Sithiwang beat Police Lieutenant Somboon Klapachon from the opposition's Seri Ruam Thai Party in Lampang province, with more than 61,914 votes against 38,336, according to unofficial results released by the Election Commission.

Mr Wattana was originally defeated in the March 2019 general election by Mr Ittirat Chandrasurin, an MP from Pheu Thai, the biggest opposition party.

Mr Ittirat beat Mr Wattana, the runner-up, by over 12,000 votes, but his death last month prompted the by-election.

According to Pheu Thai Party leader Sompong Amornvivat, Mr Ittirat's father, Mr Pinit Chandrasurin, pulled out of the race to focus on a local election, leaving Lt Somboon, who received merely 2,466 votes and was ranked sixth last year to hold the fort for the opposition.

"The vote transfer from Pheu Thai supporters to Seri Ruam Thai was not clear. It could be votes from those against the government but not necessarily for the opposition," Dr Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, told The Straits Times. "The Chandrasurins are one of those local political dynasties. But as the opposition is weakening, a win this time would not make a difference."

According to Dr Yuttaporn, the PPRP had an advantage from being the ruling party with policies implemented, and it had Deputy Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow, an influential figure in the north, to lead the campaign.

Mr Thamanat has been under fire since last year for his drug-related conviction in Australia in the 1990s. "But local politics is different from politics at the national level. The locals would prioritise what Mr Thamanat had to offer them. It's part of the patronage system," said Dr Yuttaporn.

Lampang and the rest of the northern and north-eastern regions have been a stronghold of Pheu Thai and its preceding parties for nearly two decades. But the support for the party is dwindling.

Government candidates have won four out of five by-elections since last year, three of them by PPRP candidates.

The government coalition initially had a razor-thin majority in the Lower House, at 254 against 246, but over the past year has gained a much more comfortable majority of 275 against 212, thanks to defections of opposition members, the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February which saw its 11 MPs disqualified, and by-election victories.

Saturday marked the first election since anti-virus restrictions were implemented in mid-March, when cases spiked.

With domestic tourism slowly picking up, the lockdown has been gradually lifted since May 3, following a reduction in infections in late April. There have been no local transmissions in the past 28 days.

It was the first election with social distancing rules applied. Election staff wore masks and face shields, as did voters, who also had their temperatures checked, and had to sit or stand at least 1.5m apart. More polling stations were set up to prevent crowding.

The by-election, held amid the risk presented by the coronavirus, saw a turnout of 67 per cent of all eligible voters, lower than last year's 77 per cent.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2020, with the headline 'Thai ruling party wins first election held since lockdown'. Print Edition | Subscribe