Thailand’s Forthcoming Election: Real or Mirage?

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s fellow junta leaders have dropped a bombshell that might signal another delay in general elections set for Feb. 24, 2019, hot on the heels of Prayuth’s promises that polls would be held before world leaders at the ASEAN Summit in Singapore.

That follows a full four years of broken promises. The possibility of delay had been hinted at on Nov. 12 by Deputy Premier Wissanu Krea-ngam who suggested that the election might be pushed back to May 5. He argued that the delay was still within the timeframe determined by the 2017 Constitution and in line with legislative procedures. The delay took a more definitive note when the junta issued a Nov. 16 directive giving the election commission the authority to review and alter the duly completed demarcation of election constituencies as well as to extend the election timeframe.

The spanner thrown into the works at the 11th hour has caused panic among the established political parties, who are already hard pressed to make a real contest of it because of the junta’s ban on political activities other than holding meetings and inducting new members.

The directive is an executive order of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta’s official name. The NCPO ousted a democratically elected government with a coup in 2014. The directive carries a legal punch provided by article 265 of the present constitution and article 44 of the interim constitution of 2014 which granted junta leader Prayuth absolute powers no different from martial law.

The junta’s anointed political parties, namely Palang Pracharat Party, Ruamphalang Prachachartthai Party, and the People’s Reform Party, already enjoy a huge advantage over their rival parties in early campaigning, a luxury denied to the latter. Particularly, the Palang Pracharat Party has employed the full force of the state apparatus and has fully engaged sitting cabinet ministers to run the party. The junta’s directive is supposedly meant to benefit the junta’s nominated parties, giving them more time to put their act together and to upend the rival parties, particularly the Pheu Thai Party and its allies whose main strength comes from constituency seats.

Without clarity in constituency demarcation, these parties would find it difficult to designate their local representatives and candidates for the general election. Moreover, the junta seems to overstep the prerogative of the election commission, which is supposedly independent. All eyes are now on how the election commission will exercise its authority without being dictated to by the junta.

The junta’s ploy casts serious doubt on its sincerity in abiding by its election pledges and betrays its dubious intention to hang on to power as long as possible despite growing calls to revert to democratic rule by the Thai people and concerns voiced by the international community.

The junta’s ulterior motive has been evident from the beginning, when it usurped power from Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government. The regime’s earlier promise to hold an election did not generate much euphoria even after it tasked a drafting committee headed by Borwornsak Uwanno to write a new constitution.

A song written by Prayuth pleading for “a little more time” for the junta didn’t help to allay skepticism of the junta’s promise although it confirmed his penchant for poems songs, and fancy clothes. Moreover, the hope for an early election evaporated when Borwornsak’s draft was rejected by the national legislative council which functions like a parliament. Borwornsak finally came to the realization that the junta was in it for a long haul.

The second draft undertaken by Meechai Ruchuphan, a veteran legal expert but often dubbed, like all others in the service of the junta, as neti borikorn or paralegal functionary, was written with a better understanding of the junta’s real motives and interest. However, to delay the holding of the election as long as possible, the draft constitution was slated to go through a referendum followed by the drafting and enactment of 10 organic laws, all of which lacked transparency and inclusivity.

The whole process from the drafting of the constitution, through the holding of a referendum and down to the enacting organic laws is commonly known in Thailand as a ‘Road Map’ which is an illusionary political chart with apparently no end in sight.

After the promulgation of the organic laws in mid-2018, they will come into force on Nov. 26 – 90 days later. From then on, the election will have to take place within 150 days. Both Feb. 24, 2019 and May 5, 2019 fall within this timeframe. The postponement of the general election from Feb. 24 to May 5 is at least the fourth time that an election date has been rescheduled to suit the whims of Prayuth and the junta but to the dismay of the Thai people. The junta’s open ended ‘Road Map’ can now be appropriately called ‘A Road Map for the Continuation of the Junta’s Rule’.

Upon toppling the government in 2014, Prayuth sought to allay the concerns of major countries which wanted Thailand to return to democratic rule. In his encounter with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Feb 9, 2015, the two signed a joint communique stating that the election would be held at the end of 2015 or early 2016. However, on Sept. 6 of the same year, the promise hit a snag when Borvornsak’s constitution draft was overturned by the national legislative council, apparently at the behest of the junta, which was in no mood to relinquish its power.

When in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Prayuth met Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Sep. 23, 2015 and similarly pledged that an election would be held by mid-2017. By that time, Meechai Ruchuphan had already accepted the job of chairing a new constitutional drafting committee and the ‘Road Map’ was reset to zero.

However, the passing of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, King Rama IX in October 2016 and a year of royal mourning which ended on Oct. 29, 2017, put a moratorium on holding any elections or electioneering.

By this time, Prayuth had gained notoriety for reneging on his word. On Oct. 8, 2017, Prayuth visited President Donald Trump at the White House and promised that an election date would be announced in June 2018 and that the general election would take place this month. At home, the Thai people were elated by their belief that the leader of world’s foremost super power had finally compelled a grumpy dictator to abide by his word.

They were dead wrong. Upon returning home and barely recovering from jet lag, Prayuth directed the junta-appointed national legislative council to extend the enforcement of the organic laws by another 90 days after which a general election would have to be held within 150 days. His revised ‘Road Map’ was subsequently mentioned when the subject of an election came up during his meeting with the British PM and the French President. His extension of the election ‘Road Map’ to May 5, 2019 may not be his last.

This long history of deception has only one purpose. It is not borne out of legal necessity nor is it accidental. It is a deliberate attempt by the so-called ‘Five Rivers’ – the junta, the cabinet, the national legislative council, the constitutional drafting committee and the reform committee –to stay in power in one form or other, with or without election.

Their purpose is to maintain a stranglehold on power for an indefinite period, to wipe out the democratic forces, to eliminate once and for all the continuing influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his formidable electoral forces, and to ‘freeze’ the country for better or for worse. The junta-crafted constitution, Article 44 of the interim constitution, the organic laws, and the ’20 Year Strategic Plan’ are all designed towards the same end.

To achieve that, the junta and the elite establishment are banking on the docile nature of the Thai people, who would rather comply with the authorities and go on with their lives rather than overtly challenge them. With their control of the media, they feel that the Thai people can easily be manipulated. Democracy proponents and activists are reluctant to take to the streets or defy junta’s orders for fear of their own and their families’ safety or of being used as the pretext to delay the election or even to scrap the election altogether.

The junta and its retinue may be able to avoid holding the election indefinitely by deception and manipulation of the people and the media, but they cannot avoid the social and economic costs engendered by military coup and authoritarian regime. They have no answer for the decline in trade and investments, the sanction imposed by the international community, the shrinking competitiveness, the prevalent corruption, the rise in unemployment, the steep fall in commodity prices, the spread of narcotic drugs, and most importantly, the degradation of the livelihood of the majority of the Thai people.

Is it about time for them to realize that time is no more on their side? ‘The Road Map for the Continuation of the Junta’s Rule’ may well become the road map for the junta’s own demise.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.