In late December, a prominent young member of the United Thai Nation Party, Shinapat Kitlertsirivatana, sent in a fiery resignation letter to the party. “The United Thai Nation Party cannot change this country if it will not change its internal working processes,” he declared. “I’m clear that the monarchy must remain. But conservatives need to stand for more than just protecting the monarchy and prohibiting amendment of section 112.” 

Shinapat’s resignation did not cause much of a storm outside his own party; he had only been a deputy spokesperson. Curiously, however, his criticism seems to have resonated with the wider political scene, even if not as a direct result of what he said.

Not long after Shinapat’s resignation, the UTN’s spokesperson insisted that the party is a “conservative party in a new era.” In April, the Palang Pracharath Party’s Prawit Wongsuwan announced that they would be rebranding to a “modern conservative party.” Even the Thai Sang Thai Party, which had stood by the doomed Move Forward-led coalition until the bitter end, told members to stand by “progressive conservative principles.”

There’s no use in going into a Thomas Edison versus Nikola Tesla battle about who came first with this “new conservatism” label. There are other couple questions worth asking, however. What is this new flavor of conservatism that the parties speak of? Why are so many parties positioning themselves this way? The fact that all these parties have their antennae sensing gold at this new branding suggests something is afoot. And will it work on the electorate?

“New conservatism,” as explained by these parties, is oriented around one animating theme. The royal institution is to be protected, but change can be contemplated in essentially all other areas. “We will protect the royal institution, while managing the modern economy so it brings about a bright future for Thais,” Prawit explained in defining his modern conservatism. Meanwhile, Sudarat Keyuraphan defined progressive conservatism as holding a principled stance that is both centered on the people while protecting the monarchy in a mature way.

Why the United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath parties would want to be seen as moderating their image is not difficult to see. “A state without the means of some change,” Edmund Burke once wrote, “is without the means of its own conservation.”  To be conservative, but leave ajar the door for change. To be traditionalist, but understand the allure of new possibilities. To be a symbol of the past and a path to the future. Balance these two competing priorities, the parties have seemed to understand, and we arrive at a conservatism that is palatable to the electorate.  

A good number of voters probably saw the UTN as to the right of Genghis Khan last year; Prawit is still the last of the junta triumvirs still standing in frontline politics. To moderate their image to appeal to the median voter only makes logical sense. Thai Sang Thai, meanwhile, may have come to realize that the Move Forward Party has sucked the oxygen out of the progressive space. The space to compete for votes is in the middle and center-right. 

But if several parties try to position themselves for this center-right space, that creates its own problems for all the contestants. For one, any advantage in differentiation has been lost. The space is now too crowded. And to make matters worse, it is not clear there was a lot of electoral room to begin with.

Theoretically, the center-right ground should be a space where many votes can be won in Thailand. The last two elections placed a question mark over whether or not this is still fertile territory. The Democrats in 2019 had tried to campaign on a conservative liberalism; they were decimated. Parties like Kla and Sang Anakhot Thai had tried to bet that there were still enough moderate conservatives in Thailand to give them a decent showing in parliament, even if spread too inefficiently to win many constituencies. An unfavorable change in the electoral system eliminated both from contention. If the goal was to create a center-right version of Move Forward, 2023 marked the project as unfeasible. 

So we have a classic conundrum: too much supply, and not enough demand. 

Another challenge that any “new conservative” party faces is how not to be swallowed whole by Pheu Thai. Curiously, Pheu Thai is the only party to explicitly reject such a label. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra said in April: “Pheu Thai has been accused of being a new conservative party. I can say right now that this is not in the DNA of Pheu Thai…[Pheu Thai] is a reformist party, or a party that leads change.” 

Despite Thaksin’s protestations, the vast majority of the electorate will currently struggle to figure out what exactly makes Pheu Thai so much more reformist than other members of its coalition. Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s government has so far struggled to make good on promises of reform whether political or economic. Is it the added dose of unabashed populism? Other parties have caught up on that a long time ago. Or is it Thaksin himself, once the avatar of change and policy innovation? Perhaps, but it has been an eternity since his premiership and Pheu Thai can only subsist on old merit for so long. 

If any party fits the label of “new” — signaling not new ideas, but instead a representation of being the newest viable choice for conservative voters — conservatism, it would be Pheu Thai. They are the last bulwark against a Move Forward government, the only major force now capable of anything resembling an equal competitor. Will non-Pheu Thai conservatives ever be able to stomach voting for Pheu Thai, however? Judging from conservative reaction to Pheu Thai’s recent policy initiatives, most likely not. 

Thailand deserves not only a principled progressivism but also a constructive conservatism, with both capable of substantive policy debate. People across the Thai political spectrum deserve representation. However small, there is still room for voters looking for a third option between Pheu Thai and Move Forward. With so many parties looking to fill this limited space, however, the winner will have to make it clear why they are different. In the words of the United Thai Nation Party’s spokesperson, new-era conservatives should “protect what is already good about this country while creating and developing change that leads to what is better.” 

Hopefully, what these parties see as good and what they see as things that must be better will be set out more clearly in the coming months. Otherwise, “new conservatism” will just be another turn of phrase, a marketing gimmick that will make no impression on the electorate and will be soon forgotten. 

The post Analysis: Thailand’s “New Conservatives” appeared first on Thai Enquirer.

Go to Source
Author: Ken Mathis Lohatepanont