Though Thailand’s upcoming elections may seem like a promising step towards democracy, the ruling junta might well be able to stop this dream from becoming a reality, Yoshinori Nishizaki writes.
After several frustrating delays, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of Thailand’s ruling military junta – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – has agreed to hold a new election on 24 March 2019 – the first election in nearly eight years.
Will this election signify what some outsiders hope to be Thailand’s return to being a vibrant electoral democracy? The answer is a categorical ‘no’.
Prayuth seized power from Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government in the 2014 coup. The rationale for the coup was to end the protracted chaos in which Thailand had been embroiled since Yingluck’s elder brother, Thaksin, served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006.
According to Prayuth, Thaksin’s nefarious corruption, money-dumping populist policies, human rights violations, and lack of respect for the monarchy polarised Thailand on a scale that had never been seen before.
Although Thaksin was ousted in the 2006 royalist coup and subsequently exiled, he continued to wield enormous influence over Thailand’s domestic politics. He allegedly mobilised the redshirt movement to stage months-long protests in 2010, which resulted in more than 90 casualties and extensive damage to public property.
The electoral victory of the Phuea Thai Party led by Yingluck in 2011 is another manifestation of Thaksin’s influence. While Thaksin remained influential, the sacred monarchy – suspected of having been heavily involved in the 2006 coup – incurred mounting criticism from pro-Thaksin supporters across Thailand.
Against these backdrops, Prayuth has endeavoured to cleanse Thailand of Thaksin’s resilient influence and restore a stable, hierarchical society with the King at the helm. This is the raison d’être of his military regime.
Prayuth’s overriding goal is now to ensure that he will continue to call the shots in a post-election government. The last thing he wants is to see the Phuea Thai or any other pro-Thaksin party assume office. Thailand would then descend into another period of acrimonious conflict.
To forestall such prospects, the NCPO has passed the 2017 Constitution. This charter, the 20th in Thailand’s history, gives the 250-member Senate power to select a new prime minister. While the previous Senate was partially or entirely elected, all members of the new Senate will be appointed by the junta. Several senatorial seats are even earmarked for top-ranking generals.
The new charter, moreover, allows an unelected individual to become prime minister. These clauses constitute built-in mechanisms for enabling Prayuth to take the helm of government without standing for election.
Indeed, the pro-NCPO Palang Pracharat Party has nominated Prayuth as its candidate for the next prime minister. These parties, along with the royalist Democrat Party, will likely win at least 126 seats in the 500-member Lower House.
These seats, combined with the 250 senatorial seats, will give Prayuth a majority in the 750-member bicameral Parliament that he needs to be reappointed prime minister.
The once-strong Phuea Thai Party is in disarray. Yingluck, like Thaksin, is now in exile, following the 2017 court verdict that found her guilty of negligence of duty as prime minister. Several potential Phuea Thai candidates have been arrested or barred from politics, have died, or are too old to run for office.
Prayuth was given an unexpected jolt on 8 February, when Thai Raksa Chart, another party aligned with Thaksin, announced the candidacy of Princess Ubolratana, elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn, for premiership.
This move tried to unconstitutionally draw the royal family into the political fray. It also represented a shocking and awkward alliance between a royal family member and a pro-Thaksin party.
Shortly thereafter, however, Vajiralongkorn issued a statement disapproving his sister’s candidacy, and the Election Commission disqualified her. The Constitutional Court has made moves to dismantle the discredited Thai Raksa Chart – a further blow to the Thaksin camp. The party’s electoral tactic has backfired, and there is now no viable rival to Prayuth.
The prospects that Prayuth’s conservative post-election regime will implement innovative socioeconomic policies or reforms are dim. Such policies, he probably fears, would lead to a dangerous realignment of domestic political forces as in the Thaksin years.
Instead, Prayuth will channel most of his energy, as he has done since the 2014 coup, into suppressing every kind of dissent and challenge to the monarchy. The draconian lèse-majesté law will continue, as ever, to be his powerful ‘legal’ tool for silencing critics.
Such prospects only upset pro-democracy activists and supporters in and outside Thailand. However, a sizeable number of conservative Thais – who represent a cross-section of society in Bangkok and the countryside – are favourably disposed to Prayuth’s leadership, viewing it at least as a necessary or lesser evil.
These Thais agree with Prayuth that what their country needs is not full-fledged electoral democracy but a strong government that can maintain order and protect the prestige of the monarchy. Such sentiments are especially strong at a time when Vajiralongkorn, due to be officially crowned in May, is intent on proving himself as a worthy heir to his father, the late King Bhumibol.
These citizens will be an important source of legitimacy for Prayuth’s otherwise illegitimate, repressive regime. Democracy activists and liberal reformists will have to fight an uphill battle in the years to come.