On March 24, Thailand is to hold its long-awaited general election, the first after nearly five years of military rule. It could be another turning point in the history of Thai politics, a bid to get the country out of the cycle of elections, followed by political turmoil followed by a military coup.
But on the whole, post-election Thailand is likely to see a rocky transition to democracy. The military is certain to remain an influential force in politics. The political arena is likely to return to be filled with pro- and anti-Thaksin rhetoric as in the past. The political polarization of society is likely to be back in place and could inevitably break into violence anytime. It was far from over.
Since the country embraced constitutional monarchy in 1932, the Royal Thai Army has famously staged 12 successful coups, excluding several failed attempts. This on-again, off-again military rule has sadly tarnished the country's reputation and hauled it out of democratic consolidation and prevented it from addressing important economic, social and development issues.
However, it is still questionable how truly democratic this election will be, as the system is heavily skewed in favor of maintaining the power of the military over the parliament and the military itself has also formed its own political party to compete in the election.
Since the telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was elected to run the country in 2001, the turbulent world of Thai politics has been centered around one man. The country has been intermittently shaken by protests and civil unrest that often turned violent between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin groups. The pro-Thaksin Red Shirt, are based on a loyal constituency drawn largely from the Northern and Northeastern provinces, while the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts mostly represent the urban royalist middle-class population in Bangkok and the Southern provinces.
What is really at the root of Thailand’s recurring political turmoil?
The military coups in 2006 and 2014 were staged following severe political turmoil. Their primary missions were to restore peace and public order as well as readjusting things and resolving a political deadlock, rather than abusing political power or aiming to bring about a political revolution.
This means the coups d’état (and the army) came as a consequence and, from this viewpoint, they were not really the genuine root of the country’s political crisis. However, after nearly five years of administration, the military rule led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha seems to have been overplayed. It has apparently succeeded in restoring and maintaining peace and order, turning the country back to normalcy quickly. But in terms of national unity, it has failed to mend the rift that polarized the electorate. Furthermore, instead of laying a long-term foundation and implementing preventive measures against the recurring crisis before transferring power back to civilian authorities, it rather chose to extend military influence.
According to a new constitution ratified in 2016, the entire 250-member Senate will be appointed by the ruling junta. That means, with solid support from the Senate, it would only need 126 votes in the lower house to have an overall majority. Even if he does not gain a majority in the election, Prayuth would still have greater leverage as the constitution allows a non-elected prime minister.
Despite the increasing role of military in politics, Thailand does urgently need to tackle the problems of corruption and self-serving political behavior of politicians. As evidenced, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or the Yellow Shirts was founded during Thaksin’s administration in 2005 to fight against corruption among politicians and civil servants.
To some extent, the formation of PAD, which later led to the formation of Red Shirts after Thaksin ousted by the 2006 coup, could be seen as the onset of Thailand modern political crisis. Yingluck’s attempt to pass a blanket amnesty that consequently triggered a sporadic outburst of protests was more supporting evidence.
Hence, the public should have been more aware of corruption and across the political arena because it is a root cause of current political conflict and polarization. It should be done together with strengthening independent check-and-balance agencies and running a nationwide campaign.
The military government, deeply corrupt itself, so far has not sufficiently developed underlying anti-corruption mechanisms or compelling measures to prevent and punish corrupted politicians. Current election campaigns are full of unsustainable populist policies such as raising minimum wages, farm subsidy, cheap healthcare, upgrading transportation, free education, etc. There has been no offer from any mainstream party competing in this election to tackle corruption seriously if they get elected.
What is likely to happen after the upcoming election?
It is very difficult to predict precisely which party is going to win as the three main political forces, the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party, Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party and the Democrat Party, are highly competitive. However, the race is more likely to end with no party holding a majority, even counting votes from smaller allied parties. The pro-military Palang Pracharat could achieve it more easily given that it has complete control of the upper house. Its prime minister candidate, Prayuth, is popular among senior citizens and anti-Thaksin voters. Future Forward Party, a brand-new party led by another tycoon-turned-politician, which could align itself with Pheu Thai Party, is popular among young voters and expected to win some seats. At the same time, the Democrat Party remains a significant force in deciding the victor. Interestingly, Ass’t. Prof. Dr. Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee from Chulalongkorn University viewed that if Prayuth returns to power, Thailand is likely to be under guided democracy for the next eight years.
Nevertheless, there are signs of healthy democracy. According to the Election Commission, the turnout for advance voting on March 17 was very high with 86.98 percent of 2.6 million people who had registered casting their votes. The figures show that we are likely to see one of the highest turnouts in history. In particular, young people are highly involved and excited thanks to social media. With more than 7 million first-time active voters, their votes could certainly prove decisive.
Pattharapong Rattanasevee is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Science and Law, Burapha University, Thailand