Opinion by Kobfah Dum
Move Forward gaining the most votes in the latest election is a disaster for class-based politics in Thailand. This election has done precisely what the capitalist elite have dreamed of for decades; to push Thailand away from the class-conscious politics of the 2000s/2010s, and towards a politics of aesthetics. Finally, Thailand has a respectable party for the middle class, one capable of defeating the red shirts.
The very real divide of rural vs urban, while tiresome for many to continually relitigate, is still the primary antagonism in Thailand. Layered on top of this are those formerly rural people, who have moved to the urban centres for work, many of them spend decades in urban cores without being fully absorbed into them, for most, the dream is still to go back to their hometowns and live a dignified life. This issue is (or should be), at its core, class-based. Who can sell what labour where, and under which conditions?
For all their faults, Phue Thai offered an alternative to the current reality. Indeed, this antagonism is even recognised by the royalist military-backed parties. Many policies that were proposed by parties like Pallang Pracharat and Bhum Jai Thai clearly indicate that they understand this divide– though of course, they would never genuinely do anything to tackle it. Move Forward, however, diagnoses a completely different issue as the primary antagonism in the nation. For them, the corrupt old dinosaurs who run the military, government and monopolies are the issue. This, however, is about as deep as the critique goes. For Move Forward, the issue of rural vs urban, rich vs poor, is not a stand-alone antagonism, the structural issues that plague and underline this foundational class divide, are merely seen as greed, corruption and mismanagement– a critique entirely lacking in class consciousness.
Like all parties, Move Forward, has two demographics, those who vote for the party, and those who finance it. In the former, we can see an increasingly urbanised middle class, economically and socially similar to the Prachathipat* voters of the 2000s– adapted to the times– sans royalism. Move Forward voters see themselves as a new, educated, enlightened kind of demographic, informed enough to recognise the cheap tricks of the other parties– this should sound familiar to those who lived through the Prachathipat years. Of course, these voters would baulk at the idea that they were anything like Prachathipat, however, much of the foundational rhetoric of their critiques is nearly identical to that of the early yellow shirt movement. They hate corruption, mismanagement, and lying politicians who “fool” the poor into giving them their votes, be it Phue Thai or the military-backed parties. Both Move Forward and the old Prachathipat despise Thaksin and look patronisingly down on his naive “hoodwinked” voters.
*Prachathipat – The Democrat Party – The yellowshirt party responsible for the mass murder of redshirts.
Move Forward drew votes from both the left and right (both Phue Thai & military- backed parties) it offers a clean slate and a younger face for Thailand, as well as a vindication, that you are an educated, informed and erudite voter, that is tired of the military, the old generation of politicians and most elites.
Move Forward party members are not the working poor. While living conditions for the middle class have gradually gone downhill since Thaksin, the reality is that there is still that rural/urban divide. Rich and poor. University educated and not. Those with prospects and those without. Previously the urban and semi-urban middle class, who considered themselves informed areodite voters, were served by Prachathipat. However, Prachathipat’s own corruption and adherence to stringent royalism has caused support to completely collapse. They failed to defeat the red shirts and Thaksin on the election field, instead requiring the strong men of the military to come in and form their own party that truly embraced nationalist vitriol, though perhaps not civilised enough for the tastes of those refined urbanites.
The middle class, and those who aspire to join it, needed a new party. The devoted royalists moved to the military-backed parties. The western educated university academics, sick of the stifling atmosphere of the Thai academy under the military and the Western funded NGO’s and labour-aristocratic organisations coalesced to build a new home in the shape of European-style liberalism. Move Forward and its allies welcomed the less nationalist middle class, offering a cleaner concept of capitalism, one which promises a more dignified type of politics, one which ultimately does not challenge wealth distribution in the country, but makes voters feel better about it.
Realistically, Move Forward offer little more than those aesthetics and to understand why, we have to look at the other part of their demographic, their funders. The two previous leaders of the party are both semi-elite capitalists. The kind of capitalists who are born into wealth, educated abroad, own huge businesses, bust unions, exploit thousands of people, but are not in the ultra-elite. Their railing against monopolies is little more than positioning to gain votes and make space for their own micro class in the market. These capitalists are younger, hungrier, more charming, cleaner, more dignified. They look nothing like the dinosaur elites of the old generation, yet they functionally inhabit the same class demographic and class interests as their Prachathipat predecessors. The first incarnation of Move Forward Party, Future Forward Party, was disbanded by the courts in 2019. This is not because they were a threat to the structures of Thai society, but threatened to supplant one faction of capitalist elites with another.
The majority of the criticisms of Move Forward above could just as easily be hurled at Phue Thai– and they would be right. Another party run by capitalist elites, even during this election cycle they never strongly ruled out a coalition with the military-backed parties. The key difference, however, is that Phue Thai’s low-level members and loyal voters hold a degree of class consciousness that significantly changes the dynamics of the leadership. The genius of Thaksin was to ignite and most importantly deliver for the rural poor. This material-based politics is what won their devotion. Redshirts understand class consciousness, material politics and hold their leaders accountable when they don’t deliver. The long-standing deal of Phue Thai, and their preceding parties, as articulated and practised by Thaksin boiled down to: “Yes I am an elite, I know how the system works, vote for me and I will make it work for you too”, and for millions, despite all his faults, crimes and corruption, he did. Redshirts are not the ignorant buffalos the middle class makes them out to be. They know that the party is corrupt, they know that it serves the elite, but they also know it serves them too.
Both parties want greater social protections, Move Forward envisions this as a centralised European-style welfare state and to their credit formed a labour wing (though gave it little autonomy). This has been the closest they’ve come to talking about class-based policy. The way Move Forward describe it, it is as if Phue Thai (and its preceding parties) didn’t already build a welfare state. In the 2000s, Phue Thai built a localised responsive social infrastructure, the best example is the healthcare system that can be clearly seen in rural areas. However, it has been drastically underfunded by recent military governments, to the point where the middle class would rather go private than suffer the indignity of state institutions. Move Forward voters are unlikely to have experienced this kind of functioning social welfare either because they are centralised in urban areas, they’re too young to remember the system with sufficient funding or they can afford to avoid it.
Phue Thai voters support their party, not because they’re ignorant peasants fooled by Thaksin’s charm, but because they know that the party will deliver class-based results, as they have done countless times before. Phue Thai’s decentralised policies allow funding for local organising, around healthcare, education, employment and infrastructure, building class-based solidarity in real physical spaces. Ultimately, what Phue Thai offers is a long way from socialism, but it is a change in economic alignment, a form of wealth and power redistribution, decentralising Bangkok and other urban areas, in terms of both power and capital, reinvesting it in the outer provinces. Move Forward envisions a “cleaner” modern European style of capitalism, essentially the wealth distribution would remain the same, it would just aesthetically change, a corrupt ugly old man CEO would be replaced by a handsome young one who “plays by the rules”– it’s ok to be a billionaire and exploit people, so long as you play by the rules, like Move Forwards leadership. This is not a defacto full-hearted endorsement of Phue Thai and Thaksin. Indeed, we have been highly critical of Thaksin’s policies in this journal. It is, however, an uncomfortable recognition of the material and political conditions in Thailand today.
In the end, the new generation of the urban middle class, Move Forward Party, achieved what Prachathipat always dreamed of but never could actualise, to beat Phue Thai in an election. Now Phue Thai are at a juncture, they must either reform and outflank Move Forward further to the left, discard their dogmatic adherence to the Thaksin name and update their social policy to recognise the values of the new generation, or fade into obscurity like their old Prachathipat rivals.
Move Forward are set to take Phue Thai’s place in the coup-election cycle that has plagued Thailand for nearly a century, though without the redshirt aunties and uncles from the upcountry who fought and died so bravely for so many years.
What we have seen in Move Forwards’s success is voters’ repudiation of the importance of class conditions. Phue Thai embodies uncomfortable pragmatism one that the middle class would rather overlook, while Move Forward embody nothing more than a smug comfortable idealism.