Thailand’s Constitutional Court has dissolved the embattled Thai Raksa Chart Party and banned its executives from politics for 10 years, dealing a major blow to the opposition just three weeks before the March 24 general election. The Election Commission hurriedly submitted the petition for the party’s dissolution without having to call witnesses.
The dissolution of the party, an offshoot of the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party and a sibling of the Pheu Chart Party, is the latest episode to hamstring the Thaksin forces, which until recently had looked increasingly likely to win a majority in the lower house of parliament, although the constitution has been rigged by the military to make it extremely difficult for the opposition to take over the government.
The Election Commission’s request to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart came on the heels of the controversial nomination of Princess Ubolratana (pronounced Ubolrat) as a candidate for prime minister in the forthcoming general election. The 67-year-old princess is the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is to be officially crowned in a coronation ceremony scheduled for May 4 to 6.
Princess Ubolratana’s acceptance as a candidate for the premiership was considered to have have made the election a virtual foregone conclusion in favor of the pro-Thaksin parties, save for King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s rebuke a few hours later.
According to the king, the princess’s involvement in politics was inappropriate although she had relinquished her royal title to marry an American years ago. Princess Ubolratana has insisted that she wants to live as a commoner, devoid from royal privileges and that she was simply exercising her rights as a Thai citizen when she consented to the candidacy. Nonetheless, the King’s objections effectively disqualified her and her name did not appear in the Election Commission’s list of PM candidates.
The Princess’s disqualification as a candidate forfeits Thai Raksa Chart Party of its candidate going into the general election and the matter should have been left at that. But the debacle of the Thai Raksa Chart Party does not end there. The pro-junta parties saw their chance of exacting maximum mileage from their adversary’s misadventure.
The junta struck a fatal blow to Thai Raksa Chart by citing a law that allows termination on evidence of commission of an act deemed hostile to the monarchy. Many observers were left wondering how an act honoring a princess could be construed as hostile to the monarchy.
While the Pheu Thai Party, the main Thaksin vehicle, worried about its own dissolution by the Constitutional Court, it did not see the dissolution of its off-shoot party coming, or see the misfortune of other pro-democracy parties at the hands of the junta. It is caught completely off-guard.
The junta also sought to hamper the increasingly popular Future Forward Party, filing a complaint accusing Pongsakorn Rodchompoo,the deputy chairman of the party, of violating the Computer Crime Act, which carries a penalty of up to five years in jail. Pongsakorn acknowledged sharing a negative article about a top junta official that apparently originated from a fake news website. He immediately took the story down after learning it was a fake. Earlier, the junta had filed charges against a second Future Forward party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, for allegedly putting false information online.
The Pheu Thai Party originally fielded candidates for only 250 constituencies out of 350. With Thai Raksa Chart out of the picture, the gap would have to be filled by the allied Pheu Chart Party who would also have to make up for the loss of proportional seats. Both parties may even benefit from sympathy votes engendered by the party dissolution. Their combined strength would have to secure more than 250 seats in the House of Representatives to win a majority in the House - a tall order.
However, to get their candidates elected as Prime Minister and to form a government, they face an uphill battle of garnering more than 375 seats in the bicameral Parliament.
he dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart may not necessarily be a boon for the pro-military parties, particularly the Palang Pracharat Party, of which Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is the candidate.
If these parties can’t capitalize on the court ruling, they can always rely on the junta-crafted 2017 Constitution and its organic laws which were designed to ensure the continuation of authoritarian rule, albeit without the arbitrary power provided by Article 44 of the Interim Constitution. The junta’s magic weapon is the 250 junta-appointed Senators who will give Prayuth a nod at the joint sitting of the Parliament. This immovable mass of 250 senators is designed to withstand Pheu Thai Party’s electoral landslide of any magnitude.
With all the Senators in Prayuth’s pocket, his party will have to win 126 House seats to get him elected Prime Minister. If this proves an impossible task, Prayuth will have to woo the Democrat Party, the Chart Thai Pattana Party and other middle-of-the-road parties to vote for him in a joint parliamentary session.
If such an alliance could be brokered, Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat Party would need to win only a handful of seats to return him as prime minister. This should not be too difficult as the party already has several influential turncoats from the pro-Thaksin parties who will help him secure sufficient seats from the north and northeast, the traditional strongholds of the Pheu Thai Party.
Would the pro-Prayuth alliance spell doomsday for Pheu Thai? Not really. This election is a do-or-die battle. It is already disadvantaged by undemocratic rules. A frivolous infraction could result in the party dissolution. These adversities have instead emboldened the party and galvanized the party elements into a formidable fighting force.
It can also count on the support of its allied parties, the middle-of-the-road parties such as Bhumjai Thai Party (a break-away from pro-Thaksin party) and Thai Liberal Party, and other pro-democracy parties such as the Future Forward Party which has made a splash in social media and among the youth but whether its perceived popularity can be translated into actual electoral votes remains to be seen.
Pheu Thai Party is expected to win a plurality in the House, if not the majority. However, to make it across the finish line, the party will have to go for a big landslide at the polls.
There are factors working in Pheu Thai’s favor, most important of which is the current state of the country’s economy. After almost five years of junta rule, economic sentiment is flagging, with unemployment a record high while the Bank of Thailand reports that incomes are declining. The economy is underperforming and there is a serious economic inequity as reported by the Swiss Bank.
Infrastructure projects bring benefit only to a selected few big businesses and the oligarchs. Household debt is also at an all-time high, damaging life in the rural heartland. As the junta prides itself for bringing in stability and peace to the country, most Thai people now understand that it is peace and stability through intimidation and coercion.
All the talks about reconciliation only end up with the worsening political divide. Moreover, junta’s heavy-handed measures and disregard for fundamental rights are causing anxieties among the older and younger generations alike. While the electoral campaign promises of a better livelihood by the pro-junta parties often fall on deaf ears, Pheu Thai Party’s economic policy is gaining more traction as the five years of junta’s rule have made the people’s lives harder, especially among the rural poor.
At its most basic, the forthcoming election is a contest between authoritarianism and democracy. A triumph of the pro-democracy parties, despite the dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart Party, would augur well for the economy and Thailand’s international standing. A victory for the pro-military parties could create a situation not too dissimilar to Venezuela with an elected authoritarian regime despised by its own people and the international community.
Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.