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Thai Elite Crunch Thaksin, Retain Power – For Now
Extraordinary youth movement loses headway but isn’t going away
By: Cyril Pereira
Thailand’s May 14 general election saw a record 75 percent voter participation turf out the military-royalist parties yet again. The will of the people was loud and clear – they wanted radical reform of governance to be rid of the unelected Senate, military rule, and enforced royalty worship.
Pita Limjaroenrat of the Move Forward Party (MFP) pledged to review the monarch’s added privileges and revise or abolish the lèse-majesté law. Virality on social media shot him to election stardom. No party had dared question the feared lèse-majesté law before. It is vague and is used as a catch-all to shut down dissidents with up to 15-year imprisonment.
Voters catapulted MFP into leadership with 151 seats, ahead of Pheu Thai (PT), the party sponsored by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at 141, whose populist appeal had handily won every prior election from 2001 through 2019. Apart from anger that the winning party (MFP) could not nominate the prime minister, the public rejected expanded royal privileges, military conscription, and lèse-majesté abuse.
It took three months after the election results for the prime minister to be selected, as the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court (CC) scrambled to disqualify Pita. He had inherited his late father’s shares in a defunct TV company. Holding media shares breaches election regulations. He was banished from parliament in July and the MFP was shut out of government by August with the royal pardon for Thaksin, who had been ousted from power in a 2006 coup and later convicted of corruption. Pita resigned from leadership of the MFP on September 15. Secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon replaced him. Pita pledged to remain as adviser while awaiting the CC ruling on his status as an MP.
The ruling elite deftly outplayed the PT-MFP alliance by squeezing Thaksin to concede in return for a royal pardon that shrank his prison sentence. At 74, tired of exile for 15 years, acutely conscious of his mortality, and missing his grandchildren, the billionaire former prime minister caved. It was his last chance. He got what he wanted. They got more.
Thaksin’s hope for a royal pardon only became feasible after the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016. Thaksin had incensed the late revered monarch through a public indiscretion. He has been propositioning King Vajiralongkorn since, with little enthusiasm from the ruling elite. This time, however, they had a formula to regain power, via a quid-pro-quo with Thaksin.
The royal pardon plea gave the establishment the meat cleaver to sever the powerful PT-MFP alliance. That was the price extracted to split the opposition and isolate the more dangerous MFP. They forced Thaksin and Pheu Thai to ally with the military parties plus splinter groups, to select the prime minister with the unelected, establishment-appointed Senate, and form the new government.
PT assembled a church of 11 parties with no shared agenda. Thaksin’s pardon barter upends the reform promises of PT, which declared it will not touch the lèse-majesté law. Pheu Thai is thrown into bed with the same reactionary forces that pulled the rug from Thaksin and his party in 2006 and 2014.
Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn, who led PT through the election campaign, stepped aside to nominate property tycoon Srettha Thavisin, whom few had heard of. Srettha was a PT party member for only nine months. Was Srettha planted on the chessboard for exactly this switch? All the moves clicked into place too smoothly for Thaksin’s return.
Thaksin’s Gulfstream jet landed at Don Mueang airport on 22nd August – the day the new prime minister was confirmed. He was met by Constitutional Court and Prison officials. After duly prostrating before portraits of the King and Queen and greeting his supporters, he was whisked off to sign legal papers and admitted to the Remand Hospital suite, with clockwork precision.
As a former police lieutenant-colonel and prime minister, he would be treated with courtesy. There was deference, not hostility, for the fugitive. He is under medical observation and treatment for hypertension, chest pain, and chronic diseases. The officials seemed primed to play along without hesitation or confusion.
The Royal Gazette was printed and ready, declaring a royal pardon. His eight-year sentence was commuted to a single year. Entitled to parole at one-third of his sentence, Thaksin could walk free from his hospital bed by the New Year, without spending a day in prison. The arithmetic and timing were just-so.
Whether the reversal of the elected power configuration survives is moot. The simmering resentment could spill onto the streets. Pita let the genie out of the bottle. Voters know too much about ruling class misdeeds and opportunistic royal greed. The new government must tiptoe not to provoke the restive youth.
The deaths of activists in the violent crackdown on the street battles of the red shirts (opposition) and yellow shirts (military-monarchists) in 2020, remain raw. That collective mourning added to the surge of support for Pita and the MFP to sweep 32 of the 33 Bangkok voting districts. That was a powerful mandate for change. There is no going back.
Constitutional Court reality
The Constitutional Court (CC) was established in 1997, modeled on the Court of the Republic of Austria (1920) and that of the Federal Republic of Germany (1949). It is a specialist independent court that adjudicates complaints raised by political parties, endorses the constitutionality of royal decrees and acts of parliament, plus reviews appointments and terminations of public officials.
The Court evolved peculiar constitutional concepts such as “military democracy” which it calls “self-defending democracy” that allows coup leaders to save democracy by shooting it. The core ideology of the Court is “Democracy with the King as Head of State.” It consists of a president and eight justices approved by the Senate and appointed by the King, who has an almost divine status in governance.
The Court cannot initiate action. It relies on the Ombudsman and the Election Commission to bring cases where they see threats to “Democracy with the King as Head of State.” It has acquired notoriety for repeatedly dissolving opposition parties and canceling or nullifying elections, to save democracy.
Thai military coups that abolish the Constitution retain the Constitutional Court to legitimize repression. There have been 12 military coups and 20 Constitutions since 1932 when the King was declared a constitutional monarch. The court has forfeited its political neutrality and is unfit for its purpose. Originally welcomed by citizens, it is now reviled as another prod of the power elites.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 71, is unconventional, erratic, aging, and unpredictable. The Constitution stipulates that the King must appoint a regent to oversee matters when he is abroad. King Vajiralongkorn had the Constitution amended to keep power in his hands, irrespective. He remote-controls the country when he lives in his preferred digs in Germany, although the political uprising has kept him closer to home recently.
In July 2017 the legislative assembly amended the Constitution to grant the King direct control over the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) which manages an estimated US$40 billion in assets, under the Ministry of Finance. In 2018 the CPB declared that all its assets are the personal property of the King.
King Vajiralongkorn is not taking risks with the military. He transferred the Bangkok-based 1st & 11th Infantry regiments to his personal palace guard. They total 5,000 men. There are planes and helicopters that complement this robust palace force.
Student protestors demand that Article 6 of the Constitution which grants legal immunity to the King be nullified. They want the royal expenditure budget subject to parliamentary approval. They want the transfer of the CPB assets to the King’s personal property rescinded. They also want to stop the mandatory recitation of praise for the King daily in all schools. Uneasy now lies the head that wears the crown.
Cyril Pereira is a senior media executive based in Hong Kong since 1985