Thailand’s 2019 Elections May Not Be as Fixed as the Junta Hopes

After a series of broken promises by Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who also doubles as prime minister, to hold a general election as demanded by the Thai populace and the international community, the die is finally cast. The election is scheduled to be held on Feb. 24, 2019 or May 26 at the latest.

Although the junta-drafted constitution was promulgated in 2017, the gridlock on political activity has not been lifted and the major political parties are at a disadvantage as opposed to the junta-nominated parties or groups who are given the latitude of advance campaigning while Prayuth embarks on a campaigning spree under the guise of ‘roving Cabinet meetings’ in the countryside to shore up his political base, though still playing coy to announcing his candidacy to run for election that will extend his tenure as prime minister.

As the deadline for the general election approaches, the junta had no choice but to relax its ban on political activity in September by permitting the political parties to hold their meetings, including electing their party leaders and executive party members. However, the parties are still hamstrung by the junta’s directives which put other political activities such as campaigning on hold.

For the past two decades, elections had been a contest between two major political parties, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party and its reincarnations as the People’s Power Party and the Pheu Thai Party on the one side, and the Democrat Party on the other. Other medium- sized political parties such as Chat Thai Pattana, Phum Jai Thai and Chat Pattana were mere political opportunists waiting to jump on political bandwagon to be a part of the government coalition, whichever side won.

The forthcoming 2019 election would have followed the same pattern had it not been for Prayuth, who publicly expressed his interest in politics, implying his desire for a second prime ministerial term. Prayuth’s recalcitrance to officially announce his candidacy has not prevented rogue politicians, political turncoats and opportunists from rallying behind him to form political movement and political parties in anticipation of Prayuth’s eventual candidacy.

Should Prayuth decide not to run for election, the junta-crafted constitution has a legal provision for Prayuth to be nominated as non-elected prime minister after the election, providing that his nominated political parties put on a decent showing at the polls.

A flurry of activity to form political parties to support Prayuth as post-election prime minister has altered the political landscape. The next election is no more a contest between Pheu Thai and the Democrats, traditional adversaries for the past decade. It is no more a preference of one party’s economic and social policies over the other party’s. It is no more a contest between personalities. When the battle line is finally drawn, this election will be a choice between two political ideologies: democracy versus semi-authoritarianism.

The people who favor a universally-accepted democratic system will vote for the parties that articulate the value of democracy and reject any form of authoritarianism in their political platforms. The parties which unequivocally subscribe to such principles are, among others, Pheu Thai and the newly-formed Future Forward Party. The electorates who favor narcissism, unelected deep state operators and a semi-autocratic system dominated by a military-cum-bureaucratic oligarch will vote for the junta-nominated parties, particularly the Palang Pracharat Party and its allies.

This military party may also be supported by middle-sized parties such as Phum Jai Thai Party which professes to be non-aligned and middle-of-the-road. The Democrat Party is deeply split and its choice of leadership is up for grabs among Abhisit Vejjajiva, the incumbent leader and former prime minister, and two other veteran politicians. Depending on who the next leader is, the Democrat Party could well play a supporting role for the military party in order to get a slice of the pie should Prayuth become prime minister again.

Pheu Thai has not been totally dormant for the past four years since the military coup. The party has been undergoing a superficial reinvention to stay competitive in the political arena with its new vision and motto, while seeking to inject new blood in tune with the advent of new political parties, namely the youthful Future Forward Party.

Like the Democrat Party, the Pheu Thai Party also has its share leadership problems. With the departure of Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, both the casualties of the military coups, the party has been without a leader. Although the party leader and executive members are to be elected on Oct. 28, there isn’t yet a clear choice of party leader. Be that as it may, Khunying Sudarat Keyurapan, an influential veteran politician, stands out among the favorites to take over the helm.

The 2017 Constitution was specifically designed to prevent the Pheu Thai Party from coming to power again. Its proportional electoral system is designed to diminish the party-list parliamentary seats of major political parties. Mathematically speaking, if the Pheu Thai Party were to win the majority or plurality of the constituency seats, it would obtain only a few or no proportional seats in the parliament under the new electoral formula.

To get around this anomaly of the constitution, the Pheu Thai Party has thus created several political parties, namely Pheu Dharmma Party, Pheu Chart Party, and perhaps Prachachart Party headed by Wan Muhamad Noor Matha (founder of the Wahdah Group of Muslim politicians and former Pheu Thai Party member) to attract southern votes. Each of these affiliated parties is not expected to win a majority or plurality votes in electoral constituencies but would instead obtain a share of proportional votes.

In this way, the combined affiliated parties plus Pheu Thai Party would have a fair chance of winning the constituency seats as well as proportional seats in the parliament. Furthermore, one of these affiliated parties would also be a substitute party for the Pheu Thai Party in the event that the latter is dissolved.

Pheu Thai and other political parties which advocate the building of a strong democratic institution in Thailand are working under an adverse condition engendered by a seriously flawed constitution that marginalizes the sovereignty and the power of the people.

The result of the election under a clearly undemocratic constitution will not truly reflect the will of the people but may instead perpetuate the continuance of the junta’s stranglehold on power. The junta is predisposed to maintaining power after the election as evidenced by its laborious effort in laying the groundwork in the past four years.

Such apprehension gives rise to the notion of a “national reconciliation government” which could be put into place to oversee the election to ensure free and fair election. But such a notion is only a whisper that would vanish in thin air. The most agonizing question is: Will the hope and aspiration of the Thai people also vanish in thin air in the forthcoming election?

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Chile and Ecuador. He currently lives in Bangkok.