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Did Thailand’s Elections Produced a Clear Threat to the Military Junta

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BANGKOK – On March 24 Thailand’s elections produced a few surprises — including the success of a new party, the Future Forward Party (FFP). FFP is a left-of-center, liberal democratic party, arguably the first in the country’s recent history.

The party has a strong commitment to democracy, and promised to reform the military-backed constitution and reduce the budget of the armed forces.

A young and charismatic billionaire named Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is the FFP leader. But in the wake of the election, Thailand’s ruling military junta charged Thanathorn with sedition and other offenses related to his alleged support of anti-junta activists in 2015. The case dates to a period when military courts heard cases related to civilians, so Thanathorn is likely to face a military tribunal.

What makes Thanathorn a target for the junta, some four years after the alleged offenses? The election last month was the first since the military seized power in 2014. In preparation for the election, the junta had introduced rules designed to reduce the power of Thailand’s largest parties, hamstring elected politicians and secure the influence of the military in politics for years to come.

The junta also worked to tilt the electoral playing field in favor of the pro-military proxy party — Palang Pracharat (PPRP). Despite these extensive efforts to push the outcome in its favor, the election proved a disappointment for the junta. Not only did the party of its longtime nemesis, the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, win the most seats, but the FFP and its leader, Thanathorn, also emerged as a force to be reckoned with. These three factors suggest that the FFP may be a major threat to the junta:

1. Future Forward surprised everyone by placing third

FFP did much better than any of the polls predicted in the run-up to the election. With 6.27 million votes (17.63 percent) in the “official preliminary” results, FFP placed third. The PPRP — the military-backed party — had 8.43 million votes (23.73 percent).

FFP quickly announced its intention to join the winning party, Pheu Thai, which despite gaining slightly fewer votes than the PPRP (7.92 million, 22.29 percent), won a plurality of the 350 constituency seats in the House of Representatives (27.4 percent of the seats). Thailand expects to announce the official results and new government in May. The new constitution requires the appointive Senate to weigh in on who becomes prime minister, virtually assuring Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the junta and prime minister, will remain in that position.

Research suggests there’s more to the story on the electoral competition between the FFP and the PPRP. Outside of the Pheu Thai electoral strongholds in two of Thailand’s electoral regions (Northeast and North) and the Democrat Party (which claimed victory in the South region as it has for the past few elections), the FFP was the PPRP’s main competitor.

In the capital region, Bangkok, which commands 30 of the 350 seats in the national legislative body, the PPRP took 12 and the FFP nine, with the FFP winning a slightly higher percentage of the popular vote, 26.03 percent to the PPRP’s 25.68 percent. In the vast Central region (90 seats), the FFP took just 15 (16.7 percent) of the seats, but claimed 21.1 percent of the vote, compared with PPRP’s 36 (40 percent) seats and 26.92 percent of the vote.

But if we drill down a bit further and look at how the FFP fared constituency by constituency, the challenge the FFP poses becomes even more apparent. Across 25 constituencies in the Central region, the FFP was the main rival to the PPRP, i.e., the two parties took the top two spots. By comparison, Pheu Thai and the PPRP were the two front-runners in only 21 contests. The results in Bangkok constituencies were similar, with the FFP/PPRP duking it out for first and second place in 12 of the 30 constituencies. This strong showing in so many constituencies launched the FPP as the biggest rival to the junta-backed PPRP.

2. Future Forward takes aim at the Military’s Role in Politics

While the FFP’s success at the polls certainly raised eyebrows, this alone doesn’t explain the regime’s harsh response. The next largest parties, Bhumjaithai and the Democrat Party, did not stake positions in direct opposition to the regime — many experts expect both parties to be part of the PPRP’s ruling coalition.

In contrast, from the very beginning of the campaign, the FFP set itself up as an anti-military party. It declared returning Thailand to democracy to be its top priority and blamed the military junta for much of the country’s political conflict.

From the outset, Thanathorn promised the FFP would not support Prayuth or any other member of the military to become the prime minister. The party has also made reform of the military a priority, including establishing civilian control over the armed forces and slashing the military budget.

Thanathorn has spoken of a need to amend Thailand’s constitution, which is carefully crafted to ensure the military’s continued influence in politics. In short, the FFP has consistently and forcefully campaigned on a need to pare back both the military’s power and its political role in Thailand.

3. Thanathorn Proved to be a Highly Popular Candidate

Thanathorn’s personal popularity is an existential threat to Thailand’s conservative political forces — the military, bureaucracy and supporters of the royal family. These forces have spent much of the past 12 years attempting to purge the influence of another popular billionaire businessman-turned-politician, Thaksin. This includes removing his governments from power via coups or courts (2006, twice in 2008, and 2014), banning him from politics, charging him with corruption, seizing his assets, forcing him into exile, stripping him of all royal decorations and engineering a constitution in 2016 to try to ensure that no politician with a national following ever again commands a parliamentary majority.

But despite all these efforts, a wealthy and popular new politician has emerged and set himself up as the major opponent of the military. Thanathorn is young, rich, handsome, well-spoken, a skilled debater and absolutely clear in his pro-democratic political convictions. It appears Thailand’s conservative forces are unwilling to let such a threat go unchecked.

By Joel Selway and Allen Hicken
The Washington Post

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Joel Selway is associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and author of “Coalitions of the Well-being: How Electoral Rules and Ethnic Politics Shape Health Policy in Developing Countries” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Allen Hicken is professor of political science at the University of Michigan and author of “Building Party Systems in Developing Democracies” (Cambridge University Press, 2009).