Why Thai protests are unlikely to yield electoral success

December 6, 2013
Anti-government protesters gather at a rally, calling for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down in Bangkok, Nov. 24, 2013. (Wason Wanitchakorn/Associated Press)
Anti-government protesters gather at a rally, calling for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down in Bangkok, Nov. 24, 2013. (Wason Wanitchakorn/Associated Press)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from political scientists Allen Hicken (University of Michigan) and Joel Selway (Brigham Young University)

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Thailand is currently engaged in another round of political brinksmanship. The instigators of the recent unrest are the latest incarnation of the anti-Thaksin movement that has been a constant feature of Thai politics since 2005. Often dressed in yellow shirts, the protesters, upset at the government’s attempts to pass a political amnesty bill, are demanding that the current government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister, resign. The supporters of the current government (the Red Shirts) are have also taken to the streets in response.

The Yellow Shirts have tried these tactics before and succeeded in helping bring down governments on three other occasions (once with the help of the military and once with the assistance of the courts). Yet, they have been unable to translate this success to success at the ballot box. In every election held since 2001 the same group has achieved victory at the polls and returned to power—namely, the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and their various partisan incarnations (currently Pheu Thai).

The crux of the conflict is this. Thailand’s populous north and northeast have come to vote as a block for the party of Thaksin Shinawatra. As long as they do so, they are unbeatable at the polls.  The supporters of the largest opposition party, the Democrat Party, have been unable to effectively compete at the ballot box, and so instead have taken to the streets hoping to provoke military, judicial or royal intervention in their favor. To forestall future electoral defeats, leaders of the group have even called for replacing elected leaders with an unelected “People’s Council.”

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has suggested she might call for fresh elections, after the protesters go home, as one solution to the stalemate. If new elections are held, what would we expect the results to be? Would the Democrat Party be rewarded or punished for its very public connection to the recent protests?  Some leaders of the Democrat Party are also leaders in the anti-Thaksin movement and most Yellow Shirts are also supporters of the Democrat Party. However, not all Democrats support the Yellow Shirt movement. How will they responded to the party’s role in the recent uprising? More generally, how will other Thais — those of the opposing Pheu Thai party, as well as swing voters respond?

In a survey of voters prior to the 2011 elections we embedded an experiment designed to test how association with the Yellow or Red Shirt movement hurt or helped candidates for office. Among the interesting findings are the following:

1. Being involved in one of the two movements harms a candidate’s electoral prospects. This is true even for one’s own partisan voters. If party leaders involved in the protest are expecting greater support from their voters they are sorely mistaken. The blue bars in Figure 1 represent support for candidates who are not linked to either the Red or Yellow Shirt movement. The red and yellow bars represent support for candidates linked to the Red and Yellow Shirt movements respectively. Support for a candidate can range from 1 to 4, and we can see that candidates linked to the Red and Yellow Shirts experienced a significant reduction in support.

Support for a candidate linked to the Red and Yellow Shirts have experienced a significant reduction in support. (Figure: Allen Hicken and Joel Selway)
Support for a candidate linked to the Red and Yellow Shirts have experienced a significant reduction in support. (Figure: Allen Hicken and Joel Selway)

2. For undecided voters information that a candidate is linked to either the Red or Yellow Shirt movements significantly reduces voters’ support for that candidate, and it is Democrat candidates that suffer the biggest loss of voter support (Figure 2).

Information that a voter is linked to the Red or Yellow Shirt movement reduces support among undecided voters (Figure: Allen Hicken and Joel Selway)
Information that a voter is linked to the Red or Yellow Shirt movement reduces support among undecided voters (Figure: Allen Hicken and Joel Selway)

3. Finally, the most electorally damaging circumstance for candidates is the combination of Red/Yellow Shirt involvement with rhetoric in support of the monarchy. This is particularly troubling for the Democrat Party since from its very founding the Yellow Shirt movement has used the protection of the monarchy as a pretext for many of its actions. This is interesting because even in these highly polarized times Thai voters exhibit a lot of underlying support for the monarchy. Holding other things constant, candidates who pledge their support for the monarchy are generally viewed more favorably than those who do not. However, when voters perceive a candidate to be both a fervent defender of the monarchy and a Yellow Shirt member, the support for that candidate drops. This is true even among Democrat voters (Figure 3).

If voters perceive a candidate to be both a fervent defender of the monarchy and a Yellow Shirt member, support for that candidate drops (Figure: Allen Hicken and Joel Selway)
If voters perceive a candidate to be both a fervent defender of the monarchy and a Yellow Shirt member, support for that candidate drops (Figure: Allen Hicken and Joel Selway)

It seems, then, that most voters take a dim view of candidates who are known to have links with the Yellow or Red Shirt movement, but they especially dislike candidates who claim to be protesting in defense of the monarchy. This does not auger well for the Democrats when the battle moves from the streets back to the ballot box.

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Joshua Tucker · December 6, 2013