BANGKOK – Unlike some of its neighbours, Thailand has had a hard time scheduling an election. As its military regime poises to surpass four years in power next month, Thailand’s election roadmap continues to be called into question.
A new election date, set for February 2019, now appears problematic — enabling laws named in the 2017 charter are currently being contested in the Constitutional Court on technical grounds. In short, the convoluted charade underpinning Thai politics suggests that the ruling generals who staged the coup in 2014 want to hang on to power for as long as possible.
For Prime Minister General (Ret) Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government and its junta backer, the National Council for Peace and Order, the pre-election game plan is clear: no election until a victory is assured. This means manipulating the rules, securing favourable judges, keeping opponents down and fragmented, enticing the electorate with government expenditure, suppressing dissent and delaying the polls.
The military-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee has come up with a charter that will keep elected political parties weak and small. For good measure, the 250-member Senate will be appointed entirely under the junta’s purview, representing a mandated one-third military quota in the Parliament — higher than Myanmar’s one quarter. The Constitution also allows an individual who is not a member of parliament to become prime minister if no clear candidate in the lower house emerges. This clause is seen by the public as designated specifically for General Prayut. To make matters worse, the main supposedly independent agencies — the Election Commission, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Constitutional Court — are run by junta loyalists.
The two main electoral contenders — Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party — stumble along weakly. Pheu Thai has been dissolved twice in its previous incarnations and its current line-up is embroiled in legal entanglements that could lead to another party dismantlement. Having been overthrown twice by military coups, its leaders Thaksin Shinawatra and sister Yingluck live in self-imposed exile while facing criminal sentences back home.
Internally split, the Democrat Party has pitted party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva — who is adamantly against granting a parliamentary ‘outsider’ access to the prime ministership — against former party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the street protests in 2013–14 that paved the way for the coup and is a staunch Prayut supporter.
To gain electoral support, the Prayut government last January announced a 150 billion baht (US$4.7 billion) ‘mid-year’ budget addition targeting ‘farm sector reform’ ahead of the 2019 fiscal year budget. This program is estimated to be worth more than 3 trillion baht (US$94.5 billion) in total and is to begin in October 2018. With such budget outlays in store, it would only make sense for the military regime to hold the election in the first quarter of next year or soon after.
As popular disenchantment grows in line with increasingly obvious government corruption — notably the public outrage over the expensive watches worn by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan — the ruling generals have maintained the ban on public assembly and activities by political parties. A gathering of five or more people is still technically illegal.
At the same time, General Prayut still holds absolute power under Article 44 of the interim Constitution. Article 44 is effectively rule-by-decree and is without checks and accountability.
Until favourable conditions ensure post-election power for the junta, delaying tactics are buying time. The enabling laws to organise the election, for example, are collectively determined by the Constitution Drafting Committee and the National Legislative Assembly. Both, along with the cabinet, are junta appointed. If the junta decides it wants an election sooner rather than later, these bodies can be expeditious.
Manipulating the electoral landscape is necessary but not sufficient for the military government’s political success. It must also get down and dirty by dealing directly with Thailand’s political patronage networks. In recent months, General Prayut has met with former politicians in Sukhothai, Chonburi, Supanburi and Nakhon Pathom provinces. In these and other enclaves, provincial bosses reign because the state and its bureaucrats have failed to address popular grievances.
In the months ahead, the junta will likely co-opt and poach established politicians from other parties, including Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party. In a blatant conflict of interest, the government has hinted at forming a political party to back General Prayut for the prime ministership. If formed, such a party could avoid criticism for electing a leader from outside the Parliament.
The prospect of a post-election government led again by the junta and General Prayut does away with any pretence that this was a caretaker administration to land Thailand in a lasting democratic space. It would be more like an old-style power grab by all means necessary.
Thai people are growing sick and tired of the military government, but not enough are willing to stand up and stare down the military regime. A history of coups, constitutions and corruption is a recurrent theme in Thai politics. This time, it looks no different. Thai politics may well get worse before it gets better.
By Thitinan Pongsudhirak – East Asia Forum
Chulalongkorn University Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
An earlier version of this article first appeared here in The Straits Times.