Thai Junta Backs Away Again From Firm Election Date

As fully expected, the Thai government’s promises of an election to end the reign of the junta that took power on May 22, 2014 keep receding into the distance. The deputy chairman of the National Legislative Assembly, the junta’s interim parliament, told reporters over the weekend that the earliest now that polls could be pulled off is early 2017.

It is hardly news. The date has been pushed back again and again.But the longer the junta delays a return to civilian rule, the more chance of growing rebellion on the streets, as has happened in the past when the military has stayed too long. A bigger concern, however, is the economy, which the military is widely considered to have mismanaged.

"The big risk for the military government is the weakening economy which is indeed in bad shape now,"said a Thai banking source."On top of that, the drought is quite serious."

Although real GDP is expected to increase by up to 3.5 percent in 2015, primarily due to lower oil prices, increased tourism receipts and higher public spending, according to the World Bank -- still below trend for the region -- exports are expected to continue to slow, in part to eroding competitiveness. Exports on average grew 13 percent per year from 2006 – 2011, before slowing to less than 1 percent from 2012-2014. Thailand’s market share in world exports has declined correspondingly.

There is also growing irritation over widespread rumors – unproven –that despite public promises of a cleanup of corruption, the junta is spiriting hundreds of millions of dollars out of the country and into Singaporean banks.

The political temperature has undeniably been rising. A military court in early July released 14 students who held a June 27 anti-coup protest in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. While the court didn’t drop the charges outright, there had been widespread calls for their release, including internationally, and there were public shows of support for the students in Thailand itself despite the year-long draconian crackdown on dissent.

“There is a general disappointment as time is going on with those I talk to,” said a western academic based in southern Thailand. “The biggest problem is that business is stalling and people are starting to be hurt. The rhetoric about Thaksin is getting weaker now.”

The junta says it is planning a referendum for a new Constitution in February of 2016. But "I believe that we won't be able to hold a referendum in early 2016, because, according to the procedures, we have to print and send charter drafts to 80 percent of all households, which are about 28 million households," said Peerasak Porchit, the legislative assembly’s deputy chairman, according to the website Khaosod English. "That will take a lot of time."

There is widespread recognition behind the scenes that no charter drafted by the junta would be accepted by the millions of recalcitrant voters still steaming over the ouster of the democratically elected Pheu Thai government led by army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who named himself prime minister. Successive governments backed from overseas by ousted and exiled onetime Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains in Dubai, have handily won every election since he was driven from power in 2006. The voters who put those surrogate governments in power – only to see them ousted by the courts or coups – are unlikely to vote a charter that the military will hand them.

"Human rights and democracy in Thailand are dying a death of a thousand cuts and delays - and this latest sign of further sliding in the NCPO's supposed 'road-map to democracy' justifies critics who have said all along that the junta is playing a game to prolong its dictatorial rule," said Philip Robertson, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for Southeast Asia. "No one believes the NCPO's rhetoric that it is returning happiness to the Thai people, who are facing expanded restrictions on their rights and a failing economy that the generals apparently have little knowledge or capacity to deal with. The unanswered question is when do the Thai people say enough is enough, and what happens then?"

The most recent election took place in February of 2013, when Thaksin’s sister Yingluck called a snap poll to attempt to thwart growing chaos on the streets fomented by the royalists. Knowing it would be impossible to win, the luckless opposition Democrat Party, which has never won an outright majority in an election, boycotted this one, and protesters led by the southern Thai warlord Suthep Thaugsuban blockaded voting stations in parts of Bangkok and in 14 southern provinces. Eventually a court voided the election.

There is also the complicated social equation within the country that the elites in Bangkok, while not trusting the military, trust even less the millions of Red Shirt followers of Thaksin from the northeast of the country and among the poorer classes in Bangkok itself. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel, reported in the New York Times on July 19 that conservative royalists have become increasingly critical of the military government, with Prem Tinsulanonda, the leader of the King’s Privy Council, telling the media in January that “this country does not belong to Prayuth.” Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister, recently declared in public that Prayuth should “not to extend his rule too long.” Pavin, who remains in exile after being declared stateless by the junta, said that rumors of a countercoup are growing louder in Bangkok.

As has been true since the start of the agitation that brought down Yingluck’s Pheu Thai government, much of what is playing out behind the scenes is the upcoming royal succession, with Prayuth and Prem apparently favoring different candidates to the throne, Pavin writes – Prayuth backing the wastrel and much married Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Prem and the rest of the privy council favoring his younger sister, Maha Chakri Sirindorn.

“…[T]he two men’s struggle could translate into power plays within the government, the army and the palace itself,” Pavin wrote. “And should the camp of the Queen’s Guard prevail and Vajiralongkorn accede to the throne, both the military and the monarchy would become even more politicized — and Thailand even less democratic.”

Others see little sign of a countercoup. But in any event, the committee designing the new constitution is designing a document that will make it absolutely certain that, unlike 2007, when another military-designed military constitution contained enough loopholes to allow a democratically elected government to return to power, that won’t happen again. It is expected to include a clause preventing any banned politicians from running in the elections, now put off for another years. That includes Thaksin and dozens of others who have formed successive governments on his instructions. Many of his allies fled for Cambodia or other overseas points after the latest coup.

Referendum or no referendum, whatever election does take place, the military is expected to engineer a political party that it can control. However, even among the Bangkok elites who took to the streets for months to end Yingluck’s government and their allies, it is questionable how tenable that would be. Sources in Bangkok say there is growing undercover derision over the military and its control. Providing an electorate with a political choice that is no choice is likely to provoke growing opposition.

As has been clear in the 14 months since Prayuth rang down the curtain on democracy, the army will remain clearly in charge, and even if it isn’t, its interim constitution, put in place in July last year, contains provisions absolving the military of any future punishment and pointedly says that “importance will be given to basic principles rather than to democracy only.” The permanent one is expected to contain the same kind of language. It is not language that the Red Shirt voters will endorse.