Bastion logo
January 14, 2021

What We Know

On our lack of conclusive data, the election results, and the difficulty of challenging incumbents.

Thick fog / Joseph Chan

For me, the best political writing are the ones that not only provide insightful analysis, but also strive to ground their arguments in established data — in what we know — and work from there.

It’s also the right approach when writing about this crazy moment in Thailand.

There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. Well, decades are happening, and we don’t know enough to understand any of it.

For example, consider the topic of the new constitution. It sure looks like most people want one, or at the very least, most seem to agree that unelected senators should not select the prime minister. Even the government and senators themselves have conceded on this point — because they, too, think there’s too much public opposition.

The problem is, whether you are in government or in the opposition, you cannot base your decisions on what the public wants because you have no idea what they want.

Public polls in Thailand, while conducted by professional organizations, are not trustworthy. Their sample sizes are tiny, and their methodologies are amateurish. The results cannot be taken seriously.

This is a shame, because it is the job of elected officials to translate the will of the people into legislature and policies, but they can only hear the voices of their most vocal constituents.

Or for instance, the topic of monarchy reform. Ever since August, this topic has become more and more prominent. It went from being a dream that was attached to more important conditions, to becoming one of the conditions themselves. Again, here we know nothing.

As I’ve written in the past, monarchy reform is essential if we are to move forward. It is essential if we are to ensure the institution’s long-term survival.

We can have dialogue in parliament and we can set up committees to study the matter. But ultimately, for change to happen, legislators have to take action. The blocker to any progress here is that most of these politicians simply don’t believe the majority of the country supports reform.

And they could be right, or they could be wrong. While it is true that in the past, reform had no popular support, we don’t know if the protests have moved the needle on this topic. Has the past year shifted public opinion?

We don’t know. And until pollsters gain the courage to start polling on this matter, and until they improve their methodologies to a respectable level, we will never know. In the meantime, politicians will continue to maintain the status quo. After all, there’s no point in upsetting longstanding taboos.

Local elections

Last month, we had nationwide elections for PAO admins and smaller down-ballot positions for the first time in 7 years.

The results are not surprising, influential families won almost every race they contested in, and the Progressive Movement lost all 42.

This isn’t too far off from the predictions in the previous newsletter:

Personally, with all these factors in play: the shadowy local forces and the bizarre exclusion of all early voters, I don’t see the Progressive Movement winning big, or winning at all. 10 is definitely on the high end of possibilities, with the more realistic number being around 4.

And yet, the results seem to have spawned a plethora of stupid takes from writers and journalists. The most common of which were:

  • Thanathorn can only win on Twitter, not in real elections
  • Voters were appalled by protesters’ calls for monarchy reform and as a result, rejected the Progressive Movement at the ballot box

The problem is, these stupid takes were based entirely on what we don’t know. We don’t know whether or not the protests had any impact on local races. There’s also no indication that voters linked protesters and Progressive Movement candidates together.

In fact, everything we do know points to the contrary. The Progressive Movement’s vote share was consistent with Future Forward’s in the same provinces. In fact, in aggregate, their vote share actually increased.

A much more sane conclusion is that incumbents won. They wielded their considerable power and influence — legal and extralegal — and challengers didn’t stand a chance.

With all the things we don’t know, it’s extremely irresponsible (and intellectually dishonest) to make grand statements and call for soul searching.

These writers should know better, and whether it’s because of laziness or incompetence, they didn’t apply the necessary intellectual rigor and they failed their audience. Maybe it’s them who should do some soul searching.

Here’s what we actually know.

Incumbents win

Across countries, cultures, and electoral systems, one thing is constant: incumbents win.

They are better financed, better known, and have an established base of support. Challengers, on the other hand, struggle to raise money, get voters to know who they are, and most importantly, get voters to vote for them.

Unless something extraordinary happens, incumbents are going to win. And that’s in countries with free and fair elections.

The local elections are far from being free and fair. The Election Commission orchestrated systematic voter suppression and local influential families engaged in rampant vote buying. This made incumbents even more entrenched and their victories even more inevitable.

All that is to say, incumbents should win. And when they do, no one should pretend that it is a repudiation of anything. What is supposed to happen happened. Don’t act surprised.

Beating incumbents

Onto the good news.

It is true that incumbents are favored, but political change is still possible. Incumbents can be beaten!

Incumbents lose when there is huge excitement for the challenger, resulting in massive turnout that can overcome entrenched advantages.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez / Ståle Grut

A recent example of this is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a bartender in New York City, coming out of nowhere to beat Joe Crowley, the fourth highest-ranking Democrat in the House.

While Crowley had an established base of support and would reliably cruise to victory in typically low turnout primaries, AOC was able to inspire and excite a whole new bloc of voters, boosting voter turnout which propelled her to victory.

That same year in the midterms, the Democrats won back the House despite facing a ridiculously gerrymandered map (districts drawn to substantially benefit incumbent Republicans). FiveThirtyEight estimated that Democrats needed to win the popular vote by over 6 points to even hold a bare majority — and they did win, riding a historic blue wave.

The lesson from these two examples is that it is possible to overcome the most insurmountable of odds, but only if you can inspire and excite voters enough to create record-levels of turnout.

And to do that, you need media coverage.

After the 2019 election, Future Forward attributed a lot of their success to media attention. It savvily took advantage of the media’s appetite for election-related content.

As it turns out, elections are exciting. After nearly a decade of no elections and hardships from expensive digital TV licenses, TV channels seized the opportunity to generate as much election-related content they could. These content were cheap to create and they attracted a lot of views.

This rush benefited Future Forward, who smartly sent their party leaders to all TV debates and interviews. Surprisingly, debates are generally new in Thailand and Thanathorn, who came off as passionate and visionary, outshone other candidates, who often spoke in vague statements and refused to criticize the junta.

Thanathorn at one of the numerous debates / Voice TV

In the interviews, party leaders were able to articulate the necessity of a new constitution and military reform, as well as the injustice of an unelected senate. These interviews shifted public opinion on democracy and its ripples can still be felt today in the student movement.

Ultimately, media appearances gave the party venues to introduce itself to voters — extremely vital for challengers if they wish to beat incumbents.

Unfortunately, the local elections barely received media attention, most of which went to coverage of the protests. There were no televised debates to attend, and no candidate interviews on prime time television.

When candidates can’t introduce themselves to voters and tell them what they stand for, they can’t inspire and excite them to turn out. And they can’t overcome the vast advantages of the incumbency.

The path forward for progressives isn’t easy. Many things are outside their control (rampant vote buying and voter suppression) but some things are. Progressives could focus less on in-person rallies and focus more on media appearances and creating their own media.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one of most effective tools in the toolkit, and the only one progressives have access to.