Opinion & Analysis

Asia's Political Dynasties: Thailand

Thailand has a long history of political dynasties, with several prominent families playing significant roles in the country's politics for generations.

These dynasties have been a prominent feature of Thai politics since the country transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in the early 20th century.

But of course standing outside Thai politics and the machinations of its political dynasties is the revered royal family, and in particular the hugely popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled Thailand from 1946 until his death in 2016.

While usually working behind-the-scenes, King Bhumibol played a significant role in the country's post-war political development, often intervening in political crises to restore stability.

King Adulyadej Bhumipol at the 60th Anniversary celebrations of his rule in 2006. Photo: Thai PRD

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1927, Bhumibol Adulyadej assumed the throne at just 18, after the sudden death of his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol. He was initially seen as a figurehead with limited power, but became notable for using his moral authority to mediate disputes and intervene in national political crises.

His effective brand of Royal “intervention” was most clearly seen in his role as mediator in the political conflict between the military and democratic forces in the 1990s. In 1992, after yet another military coup overthrew the elected government, King Bhumibol played a key role in encouraging the military to hold elections and restore democratic governance.

He also used his influence to push for constitutional reforms that would strengthen the rule of law and protect individual freedoms.

The role of the King and the royal family in Thailand is unique, but largely regarded as above the political fray.

Thailand's current monarch is King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or to use his formal title King Rama X, the 10th king in the Chakri dynasty which dates back to the founding of the Rattanakosin Era in the 18th century..

The country does have a clutch of conventional political "dynasties" however.

One prominent example would have to be the Prem dynasty, named after Field Marshal Prem Tinsulanonda, who served as Prime Minister of Thailand from 1980 to 1988.

The Prem dynasty has been a major force in Thai politics since the 1970s, and Field Marshal Prem, who died in 2016, is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in Thai politics during the 20th century. He was widely believed to be behind the military coup of 2006, which deposed elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Shinawatra family

The Shinawatra family is itself a significant political dynasty in Thailand. Thaksin Shinawatra, a former high-profile prime minister, and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, also a former prime minister, have been major players in Thai politics for more than a decade.

Thaksin Shinawatra. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Shinawatra dynasty is an ongoing source of controversy, with some accusing Thaksin of being a authoritarian leader, while others credit him with implementing policies that have helped to reduce poverty and improve living standards, particularly in rural areas across central and northern Thailand.

Thaksin Shinawatra was elected as Prime Minister in 2001, a political populist looking to build his power base among those voters opposed to the Palace-Army side of Thai politics. His popularity remains high among working class and rural voters – sometimes called the ‘Red Shirts". His political foes, largely urban and middle-class Thais in Bangkok and the south, are dubbed the “Yellow Shirts”.

He rose to power following the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, in which the Thai economy was badly hit, with the Thai baht losing half its value.

Already a wealthy man thanks to a mobile phone empire supported by the earlier military regime, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party ran on a populist platform, and he became the first Thai politician to win a controlling majority vote in Parliament.

It was all too much for the more conservative elements of Thai society, and eventually the military stepped in and deposed him, citing corruption, tax evasion, and human rights abuses around the Thai Army’s suppression of an insurgency in the southern provinces.

Thaksin fled the country; however, when fresh elections where held, Thai Rak Thai won those as well. 

In addition to these major political dynasties, there are also several other prominent families in Thai politics, including the Chavalit dynasty, named after General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who served as Prime Minister of Thailand from 1996 to 1997, and the Banharn dynasty, named after Banharn Silpa-archa, who served as PM 1995 to 1997,and whose Thai Nation Party at the time picked up the torch from Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party.

Despite their prominence and sense of complete control in Thai politics, political dynasties have been a source of controversy in the country, with many critics arguing that they perpetuate inequality and undermine the democratic process.

However, many supporters argue that political dynasties play an important role in maintaining stability and continuity in the country's politics.

Looking ahead to the general election

Now, some 16 years after Thaksin Shinawatra was forced from power by a military coup and eight years after his sister Yingluck lost the prime ministership due to a legal challenge, the family appears set for yet another tilt at the leadership.

With an election due by May, the military-influenced multi-party government led by former General Prayut Chan-ocha has been struck by a series of upheavals as other parties manoeuvre for advantage. Prime Minister Chan-ocha’s military-based Palang Pracharath Party is on the wane, and Prayut himself has moved to the new United Thai Nation Party, saying it offers the best chance for him to continue in office.

But about 40 government and opposition politicians have also jumped ship to the Bhumjaithai Party which is the second biggest party in the government and riding a wave of popularity due to its backing of cannabis liberalisation. Its leader, political survivor Anutin Charnvirakul, could be prime minister later this year.

But Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn is currently the most favoured future prime minister in opinion polls, with support from over 30 percent of voters, compared to around 22 per cent for Prayut. Paetongtarn’s Pheu Thai Party (the largest opposition party and a successor to her father’s original Thai Rak Thai Party) was even more strongly favoured with around 40 percent support in the polls.  

Thai politics is always complex, and there are other parties currently fighting for support, including the second most favoured party Move Forward, a part of the current opposition and a successor to the Future Forward Party which was the surprise success of the 2019 election, but which was subsequently disbanded following controversial legal action over alleged corruption.

As always, the conservative elements in Thai society are organised and express their concerns via political families, or dynasties.

"Red Shirt" protestors in Bangkok in 2006. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Move Forward currently faces a dilemma over sticking with the reformist mood expressed by many of its supporters, or tempering what many regard as an anti-royal stance in an attempt to become a realistic coalition partner.

Under a new electoral system, voters will have two votes for a local candidate and a party list which will result in 400 parliamentary seats for local members and 100 seats split amongst the parties.

A fractious coalition seems certain as Thailand tries to evolve from more than a decade of its latest phase of military involvement in government. 

Yellow Shirts, Red Shirts, the Thai Army, corporate business, and the interests of Thailand’s influential ethnic Chinese are all about to once again jump in the ring for another round. When the bell rings, the political dynasties that have run the country for decades will still be standing, no matter the result.   

- Asia Media Centre