Why were the Democrats so dominant in the Deep South?

While the Democrats had a miserable day in most of the country on July 3, in the far south of Thailand they did unexpectedly well. In Malay Muslim-majority Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat the Democrats took nine seats out of 11. This was a large improvement on the 2007 election when they managed only five seats out of 12 (Narathiwat lost a seat following the cut in the number of constituency seats from 400 to 375 mandated by the constitutional amendments earlier in the year).

The Democrats’ gains meant disappointment for Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin. Former army chief Gen Sonthi was hoping to capture a majority of seats in the three provinces for his Matubhum Party, a bizarre mixture of somewhat discredited ethnic-Malay politicians from the Wadah group (for more info on the Wadah group see Duncan McCargo’s piece), the henchmen of an exiled fugitive (a different one) and led by the erstwhile coup leader. In the end, Gen Sonthi ended up with only one constituency seat plus one party list seat for himself.

Admittedly, the Democrats also almost swept the board in 2005. That victory, however, was in the wake of the upsurge in violence in the Far South and the Tak Bai incident which, coming only a few months before the elections in February 2005, was still fresh in the minds of voters as they went to the polls. As was the silence of their representatives from the Wadah group, who at that time were in the ruling Thai Rak Thai party.

This time around, however, the Democrats went into the elections as the ruling party. Their record when it comes to violence in the Far South is distinctly unspectacular. In its two and a half years in power, the Democrat-led government was unable to make any significant headway in bringing down the violence in the region where around 4,500 people have been killed since 2004 in insurgency-related bombings and shootings as well as criminally motivated killings stemming from a breakdown of law and order in many rural areas. While violence has undoubtedly fallen sharply since the 2007 peak, the improvement was already well underway by the time the Democrats took office in December 2008. And while there was no incident quite as emotive as Tak Bai under Democrat rule, the authorities have still been unable to bring charges against anyone for the murder of 11 Muslims while they were praying in a mosque in Narathiwat’s Joh-I-Rong District in June 2009.

The Democrats’ attempts to begin lifting the widely disliked Emergency Decree in force in the three southern border provinces since 2005 came to a screeching halt in January of this year after a well-organized attack on an army company base in Rangae was followed by a series of car bombs in urban areas of Narathiwat and Yala. In the end the decree was lifted in only one district of Pattani rather than the planned five districts across the three provinces.

The Democrats campaigned on a policy of effectively more of the same for the Far South. Deputy Interior Minister Thavorn Senniam was frequently in the media trying to boost faith in the ability of the newly empowered Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), a bit of a Democrat pet project, to bring peace to the region. This contrasted sharply with their rivals, Pheu Thai and Matubhum, who were both campaigning on promises of a major restructuring of administration in the Far South – some sort of autonomy in the case of Pheu Thai and a new thabuang (minor ministry) to administer the Far South for Matubhum.

Given this somewhat ropey record, how were the Democrats able to win all but two seats? A closer look at the provisional election results shows they were not as clear cut as may seem at first glance. In a number of the nine constituencies won by the Democrats, the vote tallies were very close between two or three candidates. In Narathiwat Constituency 3 only around a thousand votes separated first place Democrat Jeh-aming Tohtayong, Chairman of the House Committee on National Security in the previous parliament and prolific blogger (http://www.jehrrming.net/), and second place Kamonsak Siwamoh, a lawyer for the Muslim Attorney Center (MAC) standing for Matubhum. The third-placed Chat Thai Pattana candidate was only a further thousand votes behind.

Narathiwat Constituency 4 showed a similar pattern with the first-placed Democrat candidate less than two thousand votes clear of the second-placed Chat Thai Pattana candidate who himself was less than two thousand votes clear of Wadah stalwart Najmudin Uma standing for Matubhum. In Yala Constituency 2 the Democrat candidate beat Pheu Thai’s Sukarno Matha, younger half brother of Wadah leader Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, by only a few dozen votes.

What is interesting is that while there were many three horse races between the Democrats, Matubhum and one of either Bhum Jai Thai or Chat Thai Pattana, Pheu Thai put up a fight in only two constituencies, both in Yala – the powerbase of the banned former Wadah leader and Deputy Prime Minister Wan Noor.

One advantage that likely helped the Democrats pip their rivals is the strength of the Democrat brand among Buddhists in the region. Many Thai and Thai-Chinese Buddhists in the three Southern border provinces share the same love for the Democrat Party as people in the other 11 provinces in the South. This gives Democrat candidates a boost compared to their rivals, which can be seen in the results.

The constituencies where the Democrats won by large margins all have significant populations of Buddhists. In Constituency 1 of Narathiwat and Constituency 1 of Pattani, covering the muang (provincial town) districts and surrounding areas, the Democrat candidates won by thousands of votes. In Yala Constituency 1, which covers little more than Yala Municipality – a major Buddhist population center – the Democrat candidate Prasert Phongsuwansiri got more than three times as many votes as his nearest rival. The Democrats also had a very big win in Pattani Constituency 2 which includes the Buddhist-heavy districts of Mae Lan and Khok Pho. The Democrats’ influence over local officials, many of whom are Buddhists from the Upper South, will also have boosted their chances in many areas. There are also rumors going around that members of the military were actively conversing on their behalf.

Rise of the Muslim parties

While Southern Buddhists are renowned for their party loyalty, Malay Muslims in the Far South are generally thought to have very weak links to parties. Malays I spoke to in Pattani insisted that the majority of Muslims would choose the person not the party. This election saw attempts to change that with the emergence of two broadly Muslim-interest parties, Gen Sonthi’s Matubhum and Muktar Kila’s Prachatham. Why then were they unable to defeat the Democrats?

Matubhum, the Muslim party that was in with a real shot of competing in this election, is composed of former Wadah politicians and a few other Malay Muslims from the Deep South combined with the remnants of the political machine of Wattana Asavaheme, a notoriously corrupt politician known as the Godfather of Pak Nam who served 10 terms as an MP for Samut Prakan. In 2008, Wattana was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Supreme Court for a corruption case connected to land titles. He is now assumed to be living abroad. The two groups are brought together under the leadership of Gen Sonthi, who was number one on the party list.

Number two on the party list was Man Patthanothai, who served as deputy finance minister under Abhisit after Matubhum joined the Democrat-led coalition in June of last year. Showing where the balance of power in the party lies, the one ministerial portfolio granted to Matubhum by Abhisit was given to Wattana’s representative, a Thai Buddhist from Bangkok, despite the fact that the party’s three MPs at the time consisted of two Muslim Wadah members and the wife of a Wadah member (Surin MP Farida Sulaiman, wife of former Pattani MP Muk Sulaiman).

The holder of the party’s one party list seat in the previous parliament, Wadah veteran Ariphen Utrasin, was bumped down to number three on the party list this time around behind Gen Sonthi and Man Patthanothai. Barring some kind of miracle, this basically guaranteed he would lose his seat. Number four on the party list was a former army general. Wadah founder Den Tomeena was shunted all the way down to eighth on the list.

The two wings of the party, in theory at least, each bring a vital asset to help bring about Gen Sonthi’s obvious ambition for a role in politics. The Wadah group brings support, the Wattana group brings cash. The Wattana clan’s electoral support even in his home province has fallen sharply – his sons were roundly defeated by Pheu Thai candidates in Samut Prakan constituencies 1 and 7.

The failure of Matubhum to take a significant number of seats in the Far South saw the remnants of the previously all-conquering Wadah group of Muslim politicians scraped together by Bang Sonthi finally wiped out of office. The only hope for the former Wadah group this time around is that Sukarno Mata, standing for Pheu Thai, wins a recount in Yala Constituency 2 where, according to press reports, he came a mere 48 votes behind the Democrat candidate Abdulkarim Dengrakina.

While the rather unsavory nature of the Matubhum party is likely to have put off voters who are close followers of political news, the majority of voters in the Far South will not have been aware of Matubhum’s background seeing only Gen Sonthi and old Wadah guys on the election posters. In fact, Matubhum was very much branded as a Muslim party and this seems to have got through to voters. Some of the credit this brings will, however, have been offset by having the party led by a Muslim of Persian descent from Central Thailand rather than a Southern ethnic Malay.

Gen Sonthi’s previous job as army chief and coup leader will also likely have lost him support among more nationalistically minded Malays and in rural ‘red’ areas – in the Far South red usually refers to areas with large amounts of insurgent activity rather than a love of Thaksin – where dislike towards the military is stronger. This factor could well have contributed to the party’s narrow losses in Narathiwat constituencies 3 and 4 which cover the ‘red’ districts of Rueso, Bacho, Rangae and Joh-i-Rong, the heart of the insurgency in Narathiwat. It can also not be forgotten that the Wadah group first lost their seats back in 2005 for a reason – they are widely perceived to be out of touch and ineffective, having achieved little for the region in their many years in office.

Prachatham, the other party campaigning on an Islamic ticket, is a much smaller affair and has a distinctly nationalistic flair. The party is led by Muktar Kila, a native of Narathiwat and former associate of Phichet Sathirachawal, a Thai Muslim who served as a deputy industry minister in Thaksin’s first term before setting up his own short lived Muslim party Santiphap Thai. Muktar’s voter base comes in part from his role as head of an influential charitable foundation that runs ambulances in the three provinces.

Prachatham brands itself as the only Malay party. Its slogan on the top of its election posters is ‘Party Kita’, meaning Our Party, written in Central Malay in the roman script. Its policies listed with the Electoral Commission include ‘being able to uphold the Malay identity with dignity in Thai society’. Given that many of the well established Wadah politicians including Najmudin Uma, Den Tomeena and Ariphen Utrasin have at one point or another been investigated for sedition, this is a brave stance for a relative unknown.

Prachatham, however, failed to find widespread support. It achieved only 38,825 votes on the party list, a fraction of Matubhum’s 251,581 and considerably less than the 57,867 votes raised by Thaen Khun Paen Din, the party of outspoken Narathiwat politician and former Jemaah Islamiah terrorist suspect Dr Waemahadi Waedaoh, who, like Chuvit, campaigned only on the party list.

Despite this, in some areas the presence of Prachatham could have had a significant impact on the result, splitting the Muslim vote in the favor of the Democrats. For example, Prachatham leader Muktar Kila stood in Narathiwat Constituency 3 where Matubhum MP Najmudin Uma was expected to retain his seat. Muktar received a respectable 7,467 votes, more than double Pheu Thai’s total. If just over half of these votes had gone to Najmudin, he would have won. Constituency 4 tells a similar tale: If only half of Prachatham’s 2,240 votes had gone to the Matubhum candidate MAC lawyer Kamonsak Siwamoh, Matubhum would have taken the seat.

What about the other national players?

The other two parties to see some success in the election were Bhum Jai Thai and Chat Thai Pattana. Though in the end they came out with only one seat between them – Bhum Jai Thai took Pattani Constituency 4 – both parties were involved in a number of tight races. As Bhum Jai Thai and Chat Thai Pattana have almost no support based on the party in the Far south, the success was based solely on the candidates. Given the weak party allegiance among Malay Muslims, the Far South is potentially rich ground for picking up MPs for the mid-sized parties now that much of the rest of the country is either firmly blue or red. Both Bhum Jai Thai and Chat Thai Pattana bought up a number of promising candidates in the run up to the election. In many constituencies well known candidates can be voted in whichever party they represent. This is likely to be the case until a new block of local Muslims MPs can be built up to replace Wadah.

In contrast to Chat Thai Pattana and Bhum Jai Thai, Pheu Thai has struggled to rebuild traction in the Far South after the Wadah politicians, with the exception of Wan Noor’s group in Yala, refused to stick with the party in its new incarnation after the dissolution of Palang Prachachon in 2008 and instead joined the newly formed Matubhum. Pheu Thai has been unable or unwilling to bring in big name candidates to replace the Wadah group.

In the tightly contested Narathiwat constituency 3 and 4 races mentioned above Pheu Thai fielded no-name candidates who, according to a former local politician in Constituency 3, had no established vote base. This can be seen in their dismal vote count of 3,611 and 3,148 respectively. Looking from outside the region, Pheu Thai’s poor showing may be seen to indicate lingering mistrust of Thaksin among Malay Muslim voters for his mishandling of the violence in 2004 and 2005. Anecdotally, however, most Muslims I have spoken to do not seem to believe there is widespread bitterness toward Thaksin for the excesses of that period such as the Tak Bai incident and attack on Krue Se Mosque and other spots in April 2004. Blame is more directed toward the army.

A provincial breakdown of the party list vote would give a far clearer picture of party, rather than candidate, choice among voters in the Deep South. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be available. It is therefore difficult to gauge the support in the Deep South for the national parties and their policies for bringing peace to the area. However, the triumph of the Democrats and dismal showing for Pheu Thai in the constituency vote does seem to suggest that the vague promise of autonomy given by Pheu Thai was not a massive vote winner. This is likely to have been because of a combination of disbelief in the achievability of the policy given the lack of details and poor promotion by Pheu Thai, rather than an outright rejection of the idea.

Where do we go from here?

The fact that the newly announced coalition parties were unable to pick up a single seat in the Far South will make implementing Pheu Thai’s Nakhon Pattani (Pattani City) special administrative area even more unlikely. The plan was already bound to face solid opposition from the military and ministry of interior as well as potentially the palace. Added to this will now be a solid block of nine Democrat representatives opposing any changes to the administrative structure that would sideline the SBPAC – seen as firmly in the Democrat orbit particularly with the current head Panu Uthairat – in favour of more decentralization to directly elected local leaders. The lack of coalition representatives in the Far South will also sap the government’s legitimacy in making such major changes to the administration of the area. The Pheu Thai-led coalition will again be left wide open to dubious Democrat claims that only they really understand the South.

Pheu Thai now have their work cut out to make an impact in the South. The offer of autonomy may give them a bit of an advantage over the previous Democrat government in the ongoing secret peacetalks with insurgent representatives. However, with the exiled insurgent representatives being of dubious authenticity and widely believed to be unable to control the on-the-ground fighters, success in bringing peace to the region still seems a long way away.