Philippines can learn from Thai opposition victory — analysts

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE VICTORY of anti-junta opposition parties in Thailand’s elections should prompt the social movement in the Philippines to boost party-building efforts and develop new leaders from the youth sector who could push reforms, according to political analysts. 

“The upset election win by Thai opposition parties sends a clear message to all opposition forces out there that political change is possible if it is done through serious party-building, grassroots mobilization and youth participation,” Arjan P. Aguirre, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

On Sunday, Thailand’s youth-backed Move Forward Party won in an election that rebuked the reign of the military junta, which last grabbed power in 2014.

The election turnout was at a record high as Thai voters demanded change under a junta-era Constitution, with the party getting more than 150 seats and populist Pheu Thai, another opposition party, getting more than 100 out of 500 seats in the lower House.

That put the two opposition parties, which are set to form a coalition party along with three other groups, far ahead of right-wing parties including the United Thai Nation Party, which is backed by Prime Minister and 2014 coup leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

Move Forward, described by international observers as a “game-changer,” managed to survive and thrive under the well-entrenched royalist junta by engaging with groups and forces critical of the government and offering a simple yet viable political vision to Thais — a more democratic Thailand, Mr. Aguirre said. 

“This narrative was able to get the support of the Thais because of its effective contrast to the politics of stability, tradition and order by the royalist regime,” he said.

“They were noticeably clear and consistent in resisting the royalist establishment by focusing on the revocation of the lese-majeste law and calling for democratic reforms in Thailand such as a new Constitution and a stronger civilian government, among other things,” he added.

Move Forward’s reformist agenda is widely popular among young people, reflecting shifting attitudes toward key institutions and the ruling order in Thailand, Aries A. Arugay, who heads the University of the Philippines Political Science Department, said by telephone.

“The party has not been cynical about the importance of social justice and addressing economic inequality and pushing a progressive reform agenda,” he said, noting that the party was determined to educate voters and build support.

Mr. Arugay noted that the party, which won in Bangkok, had also managed to get the strongholds of Mr. Chan-o-cha’s party in rural areas.

“They believe that policies are very important in an election, that it’s not just about popularity and celebrity.”

In the Philippines, which has been dominated by influential clans, opposition forces “need a broader political imagination,” Mr. Arugay said.

“They need to expand the recruitment pool of people who are running for office, because they’ve become so used to the system of pedigree and privilege,” he said.

He said Philippine progressive forces should recruit and banner new faces from the youth sector, which accounted for more than 50% of registered voters in the 2022 elections.

Move Forward is led by 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat, who was elected to Parliament as a member of Future Forward. The latter disbanded in 2020 after a court found it violated election laws. 

The disbandment of Future Forward, which was founded by billionaire and anti-military Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, had sparked outrage among youngsters who wanted change in the country’s traditional political structure, which is ruled by the monarchy and military establishment.

The opposition Pheu Thai party is led by 36-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra, whose father Thaksin, a businessman and former policeman, and aunt Yingluck headed governments that were toppled by military coups.

Thailand’s situation under the military-crafted Constitution is quite familiar to Filipinos who lived during the authoritarian rule of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was toppled by a street uprising in February 1986.

His son, Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., won the 2022 presidential election, years after holding key national and local positions.

“In Thailand, they have a broader sense of a political possibility and imagination and I think if you have lived in nine years of authoritarian, military-led government, you have no other option but to broaden that imagination because you’ve been deprived,” Mr. Arugay said.

He added that the Philippine opposition should harness young leaders who could better present alternatives to the Filipino masses. 

The Thai elections were a combination of two legacies — the long history of Thai youth-led activism and Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist appeal, said Anthony Lawrence A. Borja, who teaches political science at De La Salle University.

“These probably provided an avenue for a wide range of political tendencies to converge on an anti-military platform,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “If we are to learn something from it, then we can ask, what amalgamation of tendencies can fit the Filipino context given the weaknesses of mainstream opposition and leftist movements at the national level?”

Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher studying at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development, said the Philippine opposition camp lacks young, dynamic figures and is dominated by liberals, moderates and leftists.

“The relative youth of Move Forward’s Pita and Pheu Thai’s Shinawatra really helped sell the idea that these leaders were representing the youth,” he said via Messenger chat.

“Both optics, strategic campaigning and traditional networks helped mobilize and sell to a youth sector that had been protesting since the height of the pandemic.”

“The Thai case should inspire Philippine opposition forces to continue to innovate,” Mr. Aguirre said. “They really need to recalibrate and refurbish their ways and strategies. They need to refresh their ideas and framings.”

“This is the key in getting the support and participation of the emerging political force — the youth — in their political mobilizations,” he added.