Revenge of the old guards

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Revenge of the old guards Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha (right) greets Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob upon his arrival for a welcoming ceremony at the Government House in Bangkok, Feb. 25, 2022.
Jack Taylor/AFP

Malaysia and Thailand have both been hit hard economically, especially by the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet the politics in both countries have become more retrograde over the past three to four years, giving little hope that new policies will address their post-COVID-19 economic challenges, the rising inequality and any ability to deal with the deep social cleavages. 

In Thailand and Malaysia, elections must be held by March 2023 and September 2023, respectively.

Among the people of both Thailand and Malaysia there is a clear desire for change, with progressive quarters seeking to transform their nations’ political systems and economies radically. But traditional political elites in the next-door neighboring countries are in the way, working assiduously to weaken and marginalize progressive voices. 


The May 2022 gubernatorial election in Bangkok demonstrated a clear preference for progressive candidates, particularly among an urban middle class, which has grown tired of the military-backed government’s inept handling of the economy. The incumbent military-backed candidate finished a humiliating fifth.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and 10 of his cabinet members survived their fourth vote of no confidence since 2019, by a comfortable margin owing to their electoral majority. But the goal was to damage the unpopular PM and his coalition partners ahead of the 2023 general election.

One particular target of the no-confidence vote was Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.

Anutin leads the Bhumjaithai party, which holds 51 seats (10 percent) in parliament, and is a key coalition partner for the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP). Bhumjaithai is in a relatively weak position going into the next election.

The opposition is concentrating its efforts on the governments more vulnerable coalition partners. 

In a recent public opinion poll, the 35-year-old daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra outperformed the incumbent prime minister – a former junta chief – by a significant margin.

In that same poll, the opposition Pheu Thai party won 36 percent support, followed by the Move Forward Party (18 percent). The incumbent PPRP received a dismal 7 percent of support.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha (right) talks to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan after a no-confidence vote against him was defeated at Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, July 23, 2022. [Sakchai Lalit/AP]

It is unclear whether Prayuth will get another term, though he is angling for one. Members of his own coalition have, at times, tried to distance themselves from him because of his unpopularity and economic mismanagement. 

He already saw 16 members of his PPRP defect from the party. Another coup leader, Prawit Wongsuwan, last week blamed Prayuth squarely for the coup.

The prime ministers own coalition views him as an electoral liability, and yet the Palang Pracharat cannot come up with a viable, charismatic and popular alternative. 

The military continues to enjoy a host of electoral advantages, including a completely appointed senate that gets to vote for the prime minister; a party-list system that no one can understand; gerrymandering; mal-apportionment of the vote; a host of laws to keep the opposition on their back foot; and a thoroughly controlled election commission. 

In particular, the government continues to weaponize Article 112, or the law that guards against royal defamation. It recently charged the leader of the Move Forward Party, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, with insulting the monarch. 

Charismatic opposition figures face a torrent of legal challenges and criminal charges ahead of the polls. One only has to see how politically neutralized Move Forward’s Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has become, after creating the party that won the third largest number of seats in the 2019 general election.

Thai authorities have acknowledged using sophisticated surveillance software to target the democratic opposition. At the same time, lawmakers continue to push for the passage of a highly restrictive NGO bill, despite resistance from the opposition.


In Malaysias 2018 general election, the population was so disgusted with corruption and traditional race-based politics that they handed the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party that anchored the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, its first defeat in 61 years. There was a brief glimmer of hope that Malaysia would move beyond identity politics and embrace political parties that were no longer identified by race.

This was short-lived.

By February 2020, Malay-based parties, both within the government and the disgraced opposition, staged a political coup and formed a ruling coalition, overturning the will of the electorate. 

The government of Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who came to power last August, has been a weak coalition of competing interests, as each member vies for the same slice of the electorate.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri is a compromise figure with a small base of support, and his greatest challenge comes from corrupt and discredited UMNO elites, who have roared back to power.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been convicted in a case related to a subsidiary of the scandal-ridden 1MDB sovereign fund. And yet he continues to vie for influence.

His final appeal is scheduled for mid-August, though there are doubts that even if his conviction is upheld, he will ever face justice. 

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (center) arrives at the Kuala Lumpur High Court for the verdict in the first of his corruption trials linked to the 1MDB financial scandal, July 28, 2020. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

The UMNO old guard, in particular, has moved to weaken the judiciary.

The judge who oversaw the conviction of Najib was himself tried for corruption. The weaponization of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission against political rivals prompted a strike by the country’s lawyers who saw this as an assault on the countrys independent judiciary.

Malay chauvinism and intolerance are on the rise as the governing coalition parties try to pander to the ethnic Malay electorate. Scapegoating the minorities is usually a recipe for a successful political campaign for Malay politicians.

While Ismail Saabri, the incumbent PM, has to worry about attacks from within his own governing coalition, and leadership challenges from fellow UMNO leaders Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Najib, what he does not have to worry about is a challenge from the opposition. 

The People’s Justice Party (PKR), for its part, is facing leadership challenges and infighting. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim refuses to pass the baton to a new generation of leaders, causing rifts within the party. This is a devastating reversal from 2018 when it was the single largest vote-getter in parliament. 

The Democratic Action Party (DAP), meanwhile, remains strong and has a new charismatic young leader, Loke Siew Fook (Anthony Loke), who continues to attract and field strong, competent, and clean candidates. However, there will always be electoral limits to what a party that the general public views as an ethnic Chinese party can achieve at the national level.

With the opposition in disarray, Najib, Zahid, and some other old guard smell blood in the water and are pushing for early polls – as early as this fall – hoping to get out of their legal jeopardy.

Ismail Sabri seems intent on delaying elections to the last possible moment, uncertain of whether he or the tainted old guard will be the partys standard bearer. 

Does it matter?

The old guard in both countries is pushing back and will use all means at their disposal to retain power.

In Thailand, there’s a real chance that violent protests will resume should the will of the people be thwarted again, as many suspect will happen.

In Malaysia, there is less concern about political violence in the streets, but demonstrations over soaring food prices and inflation are ongoing, and could morph into a larger anti-government movement.

In either case, the return of the old guard will set both countries back at a time when they need to enact meaningful political and economic reforms to stay competitive. 

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.