Thai Baton Passes From Dictatorship to Elected Dictatorship

The election of former Prime Minister and Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai as Speaker of Thailand’s House of Representatives – despite the fact that his party was drubbed and won no seats in its traditional Bangkok stronghold – indicates a grubby political reality portending that the junta will remain in charge by buying loyalties and ignoring strong electoral showings by pro-democratic parties.

The election of the speaker, who also doubles as the president of the parliament, suggests the most likely composition of both benches in the lower house, in which the government bloc is likely to be led by the junta’s Palang Pracharat with about 253 seats, with the opposition holding about 245. It is a result produced not by political logic but by horse-trading to keep the junta in power.

As the voting for the House positions was by secret ballot, some renegade MPs, popularly termed “cobras” from the pro-democratic front, reportedly voted in favor of the candidates nominated by the military camp. The cobra phenomenon, in which MPs seek outright bribes to switch seats, is a long-time political phenomenon in Thailand.

Although the support of the civilian parties will afford the next authoritarian government a slim lower-house majority, the election gives the military regime a shaky façade of legitimacy and a thin veneer of democracy. The cobras have been playing coy for some time despite numerous overtures by the military until the crucial moments of the House session when the house speaker position was up for grabs. Although the battle line in the lower house has been drawn, the line is porous as many cobras from both benches will cross the aisle should they deem it expedient.

The regime has long been favored to keep the reins of power through a massively rigged election afforded by the junta-sponsored constitution and by election laws that gave a huge advantage to the junta’s proxy parties. At the same time, the junta-appointed state apparatus also helped to assure the victory of these parties through opaque application of election laws.

The cases in point were the disqualification of candidates and MPs belonging to the pro-democracy camp and the dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart Party which was allied to the Pheu Thai Party, which is closely tied to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who arguably remains the most popular politician in the country despite his years of self-exile.

Moreover, the ambiguity of the election law was designed to benefit pro-military parties. This was evident in the oblique calculation of the proportional seats by the junta-appointed Election Commission, which, capitalizing on the approval of the Constitutional Court, used a controversial vote-counting formula to catapult 11 micro parties to power by awarding each a seat in the Lower House. The move cemented the allegiance of these micro parties to the military and helped to buttress the military front to the detrimental of the democratic front.

Most of the MPS from the Democrat Party and middle-of-the-road parties such as Phumjai Thai Party, Chart Thai Pattana Party, Ruam Palang Prachachart Thai Party, Chart Pattana Party, and 12 other micro parties, all of which are slated to join the Palang Pracharat Party-led government, were elected on the strength of their campaign pledge to oppose the continuation of authoritarian rule by the junta headed by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.

However, the lure of cash rewards as well as the promise of legislative positions and cabinet appointments appears to have been too great for the members of these parties to resist. Can these temptations blind them from their responsibility and accountability to the people who put them to power?

Despite the dubious success of the junta in engineering its return to power, albeit in a different form, the political acrimony and horse-trading among the MPs will lurk under the surface. The democratic front, led by Pheu Thai Party and Future Forward Party. are by no means entirely cowed. These pro-democracy parties will seek to provide a clear counterpoint to the military-led government, if and when it is formed. They are likely to use legislative maneuvers to induce defections from the government coalition or even to precipitate the resignation of the government by no-confidence vote.

Likewise, the government can reach across the aisle to entice stalwart pro-democratic MPs to vote for its legislations through the rewards of cooperation if not cash.

In any democracy, the incumbent government’s electoral victory is usually based on the acceptability and proven performance of government policies. The electoral gain of the junta-led Palang Pracharat Party with incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth as its prime ministerial candidate has none of the legacies of Asian counterparts who went to the polls earlier this year.

Prayuth’s China pivot was conceived not from sound strategic consideration but as a response to US sanctions against the 2014 military coup which toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Furthermore, Thai economic performance in almost every sector during Prayuth’s watch has been the worst in Southeast Asia. Thailand’s GDP growth during this period was also the lowest among ASEAN countries, with the exception of Singapore which has already graduated from developing country status. Thailand’s income gap has widened while household debt has increased exponentially.

Contrary to Prayuth’s much publicized war on corruption, his regime has been characterized at home and abroad as corrupt with no accountability to either the people or the press. Ironically, Prayuth’s pledge to prioritize human rights as his national agenda was a non-starter as the regime has been perennially criticized for its rampant human rights abuses.

To stimulate the economy, the regime launched a multi-billion-dollar development project called the Eastern Economic Corridor or EEC, geared toward infrastructure building and advanced technology in electronics, aviation, petrochemicals, automation, among others, to attract public and private investments.

The EEC project is also part of the junta’s 20-year national strategy which commits all future governments, whether elected or otherwise, to the current political structure. This grand design, which has yet to take off, also has the attributes of the China pivot as it is linked with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Perhaps the only credit that the Prayuth regime can claim is in the realm of security and stability. Be that as it may, the junta’s connivance with the Democrat Party, which ignited the devastating political upheaval during 2013-2014 to bring down the Yingluck government is common knowledge. The instability was clearly manufactured to justify the coup which subsequently took credit for restoring stability.

The past four years of military regime under Prayuth have not produced any substantive benefit for the country and its people who would rather opt for improved livelihood than stability without progress. With the possible inclusion of civilian political parties in the government coalition, it remains to be seen if the incoming elected authoritarian regime can move the country forward rather than backward into the future as was the case under the outgoing Prayuth government.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai diplomat living in Bangkok. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.