Changes of Political Identities during Conflict and Uncertainty: A Real-World Example from Thailand
Historically, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a prime minister serving as the head of government since the democratic revolution in 1932. However, throughout the almost 90 years since the revolution there has been a tradition of military seizure of power from the civilian government. As part of this tradition, Thailand has now been governed by a military junta for more than 5 years.
The most recent political turmoil began in 2005 when the previously popular, second term prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra sparked a large public protest due to his financial dealings. The prolonged protest steered Thailand back under military rule and Thaksin ended up fleeing the country. This event led to political friction for the Thai people between the so-called Yellow and Red shirts (those who were against the Shinawatra family versus those who supported them, respectively). Alternating protests against one another continued over eight years, followed by a series of violent responses from the government against their opponents.
After a few years without military control, political turmoil peaked again in 2013 due to the announcement of a proposed amnesty bill by the Yingluck government in an attempt to help bring her brother Thaksin home. This ignited a large demonstration by the opponents (the Yellows) which advocated for, and eventually led to, another military coup.
Until that point in time, Thailand’s politics were informally seen as a two-party system. However, party identities of Thai people were not only tied by personal attitudes and ideologies, but were also tied to morals and non-political identities such as social class. As a result, disputes over politics could potentially put a person at risk of losing friends or jobs.
This year (2019), after 5 years under the military regime, Thailand managed to hold another election. One of the important occurrences during this election was a dramatic drop in popularity of the two major political parties. According to unofficial election results1, both parties had lost about 40% (16 million votes) of their supporters compared to the previous election in 2005. The lost voters had swung to support several newly formed parties. Of those new parties, Anakodmai (meaning ‘new future’) was the most popular party2 which successfully won 80 seats in the parliament in its first election. The party was portraying itself as a fresh ‘new blood’ party and offered to be an alternative choice for people who had lost trust in old-style politics.
The success of this new party has unleashed the country from a two-party system. Even though Thailand’s democratic status is still unstable and ambiguous, the 5.8 million votes (out of about 35 million eligible votes) Anakodmai received are at least indicative of ongoing political transitions. At the moment there is not enough data on what motivated Thai people to change their political identity and support. However, this phenomenon suggests that political identity change is possible3 even in a country that has suffered from seemingly unsolvable conflicts. Perhaps a brand-new, alternative choice might be a factor that helped facilitate the process of change in political identity under difficult circumstances.
- By Gi Chonu
1 Official results of the 2019 general election have not yet been released.
2 Anakodmai is the only popular party led by a civilian who has never been appointed to a previous political position.
3 Chonu, G. K., Louis, W. R., & Haslam, S. A. (2019). Comparative Motivations behind Political Identity Change versus Continuity. Manuscript in preparation.
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