After nearly five years of military government and a new constitution, Thailand’s political outlook remains murky. Its planned February 24 election has been delayed multiple times and has been tentatively reset to March 24.
Under a 150-day period under which laws must come into effect, the election can be pushed back to as late as May 9. Meanwhile, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who delayed his succession to the throne after his father’s death in 2016, is set to be crowned on May 4.
In the short term, Thailand’s politics are likely to be contentious, but the longer-term prospects include the possibility of a new balance after 12 years of political polarisation and conflict.
This balance may only be realised, however, if the country’s leaders are willing to compromise and accept a form of democratic rule that preserves some of the interests of the elite while allowing more voice and space for the previously neglected masses.
At issue is the role of the current military government, headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who led a junta that seized power in May 2014. That the military and Prayuth want to retain power after the polls is clear, and how they intend to do so is controversial.
Prayuth and his junta cohorts are banking on the 2017 constitution, drafted by their appointees to ensure military supervision over Thai politics and keep political parties permanently weak.
For example, the mixed-member apportionment system works against bigger parties like Pheu Thai and favours smaller parties with the aim of producing a fractious 500-member House of Representatives.
The new pro-military constitution undermines the political party system by allowing party hopping among established MPs and shifting authority from democratic institutions and elected representatives to appointed agencies.
Further, the 250-member senate has been vested with the authority to partake in the selection of the prime minister after the poll. Conveniently for the military, the senate will be appointed by the junta, either directly or indirectly through a committee. The junta also saw to it that a 20-year “national development plan” is embedded in the charter which the elected government will have to follow by law.
Meanwhile, state agencies that are supposed to uphold transparency and accountability, such as the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission, are stacked with junta appointees.
Yet with government largesse and state power behind it, the pro-Prayuth Palang Pracharat Party is still not polling well. It has poached and lured veteran MPs from other parties but many are still reluctant to join because Palang Pracharat is not seen as popular with the electorate.
Prayuth himself has not been confident enough to throw his hat in the ring with the party that was set up to return him as post-election premier. In fact, there is a possibility that an anti-junta vote could take place at the expense of Palang Pracharat and other pro-military parties, such as the Action Coalition for Thailand.
Because of weak rivals and popular disenchantment with junta rule, Pheu Thai still has a solid standing despite earlier dissolutions of its precursors. Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, two prime ministers ousted in coups in 2006 and 2014, are still calling Pheu Thai’s shots from self-imposed exile. But there seems to be some give and take with on-the-ground autonomy under Sudarat Keyuraphan and Chatchart Sitthiphan, two emerging leaders of the party. To handle new charter rules against big parties, Pheu Thai has branched out into affiliated parties, namely Pheu Dharma and Thai Raksa Chart.
Together, these three Thaksin Shinawatra-aligned parties are the leading contender to come out as the largest winning bloc, but probably not large enough to form a coalition government. However, if new progressive but untested anti-military parties, such as Anakot Mai (Future Forward), fare well at the polls, they could tie up with the pro-Thaksin parties to form a coalition government. This is a long shot because of the pro-military senate’s inflated constitutional role.
The Democrat Party, which has been Pheu Thai’s and Thaksin Shinawatra’s main parliamentary opponent, but is also critical of junta rule, could end up being kingmaker if it joins forces with either the pro-military parties or those under Shinawatra.
It is unlikely the Democrat Party will be the largest winning party but it may secure enough seats to form a coalition government with pro-military, anti-Thaksin parties and those in the middle camp that are keen to join any emerging government, including Bhumjaithai and Chart Thai Pattana.
These election prospects echo a recurrent theme in 21st-century Thai politics. The cycle typically starts with an election win by the Thaksin Shinawatra side, followed by an anti-Thaksin Shinawatra movement to oust his forces with street demonstrations and eventually a military coup, only to end up with a new constitution and another election victory by a pro-Thaksin party.
This happened in 2005-06, 2007-08, and, most recently when Yingluck was at the helm, in 2013-14. The first and the third culminated with military coups, while judicial activism got rid of the pro-Thaksin government in December 2008.
This time, Thailand’s vicious cycle of elections, coups and constitutions have a breakout opportunity. Under the new reign of King Vajiralongkorn, political forces are realigning and the colour-coded polarisation of the recent past – between the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra yellow and pro-Thaksin red – appears less pronounced.
For the first time in 18 years, it is conceivable that Thai political forces under a new reign may seek new rules and a fresh modality to work out their competing interests in a democratic arena where there is a rebalancing of the military, monarchy, bureaucracy and judiciary on the one hand, and parliament, political parties and elected representatives on the other.
This kind of compromise and new normal in Thai politics is an uphill road with near-term obstacles and volatility. Yet it is Thailand’s only avenue out of the impasse that has left the country underperforming economically and a laggard politically. ■
Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.