Thai Junta Unsettled by Unexpected Youth Movement

The preliminary results of Thailand’s March 24 general election, marred by confusion, delays, alleged irregularities and lack of transparency, have produced an inconclusive outcome and portend deeper political and social polarization and an unstable government, be it pro-junta or pro-democracy. There are also widespread suspicions of vote manipulation to keep the junta in power.

Nonetheless, there are signs that the election significantly altered Thailand’s demographic landscape. The impact of young and first-time voters was enormous. They were instrumental to the success of the newly formed Future Forward Party (FFP) which, thanks to the 6.2 million mostly young voters, ranks third just behind the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party.

The Democrat Party, which normally does well in Bangkok and the south, had to cede its turf in Bangkok to an upstart FFP and Palang Pracharat Party. The Democrat Party, which is backed by the urban middle class and the Thai oligarchy, had to swallow their pride by falling from second-rate party to third-rate as it consistently failed to deliver.

The vote clearly rattled the junta. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, has already been charged with sedition for his past activities although critics say the charge was manufactured to try to put the party out of business. Recognizing the party’s appeal to the young at the polls, the junta sees it as a threat and has no recourse but to try to incapacitate it.

The message from the youth is thus clear. With growing political awareness, they have grown increasingly fed up with authoritarian regimes which came to power by military coups and they want change. The FPP’s appeal is resonating across the country.

The FFP and Palang Pracharat have made inroads into Bangkok constituencies which long have been the stronghold of the Democrat Party, It is not difficult to understand the exodus of urban middle class votes from the Democrat Party to Palang Pracharat. The Thai urban middle class is traditionally conservative and values stability above all else. Many are infatuated with dictatorship which they think is an embodiment of Thai traditional values (see “Moral and Intellectual Bankruptcy of Thai Middle Class”).

These people voted for the continuation of authoritarian rule headed by Prayuth. By contrast, the middle-class youth are more liberal in their outlook and tend to favor democracy over dictatorship. They voted for parties that are unequivocal in their stance against dictatorship in any form.

Throughout the country, the vote is an indication that people learned to think for themselves and no longer rely on the state-controlled mainstream media for news and information. Thanks to the advent of social media and information technology, rural and urban Thais alike can now access information relevant to their lives. There is a strong feeling that they want a government that is accountable to the people and not the one stuffed with self-righteous and the so-called “good” people with no accountability to the people.

Every ballot cast is an expression of the people’s inalienable rights and sovereignty that cannot be taken away neither by military coups nor the junta-imposed constitution. The onus is now on the Election Commission to make this election a true reflection of the people’s will and aspiration.

That is a tall question. While the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party has claimed victory by winning the most constituency seats in the lower house, Palang Pracharat contends it has won popular votes to afford it the mandate to form a government.

Both sides are now engaging in intense horse-trading with the smaller parties to cobble together a majority. Here, Pheu Thai and other pro-democracy parties will have an advantage in achieving a majority. The combined strength of Palang Pracharat Party and its allies would still fall far short of the majority in the House but, ironically, would have enough House seats to form a minority government with the support of the junta-appointed 250-member Senate, lending credence to the spectre of junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha’s returning as Prime Minister.

In the junta-sponsored constitution, any party that can muster more than 375 seats in the 750-member bicameral Parliament will be able to form a government.

Meanwhile, the election results tabulated by the Election Commission are still not stable and won’t be certified until May 9, after the royal coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Some 66 winning MPs may face disqualification by the Election Commission (EC) which has quasi-judicial powers and re-runs are in the cards. Some votes also must be recounted.

Moreover, the number of proportional or party-list MPs has yet to be finalized as the commission seems at a loss in trying to figure out the right formula to calculate the proportional votes, given the lack of clarity in the junta-supervised election law. The Pheu Thai Party believes that this is an attempt by the junta, through the EC, to customize the election results in order for the junta to continue its grip on power.

All eyes are now on the Election Commission as public pressure mounts for an explanation of many allegations of irregularities, discrepancies in vote counts and the unusually high number of invalidated ballots. Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party are also probing poll irregularities.

In another indication of the strength of youth sentiment, riding on the waves of the public outcry over the shortcomings, university students from 14 institutions across the country have collected more than 800,000 signatures to impeach the election commissioners over alleged irregularities and partiality. The impeachment procedure requires only 20,000.

Another civic organization is also collecting signatures to petition the National Counter Corruption Commission to recommend the Supreme Court to impeach the commissioners.

As accusations pour through the social media floodgates, the commission is threatening the students with defamation lawsuits. However, the damage has already been done as the people are already distrustful of an election process plagued with problems and inefficiency.

Pheu Thai puts it quite succinctly, stating that the Thai society has many questions on efficiency, transparency and accuracy of the mechanism and process to the extent that the people are talking about the commission’s part in supporting the junta’s stranglehold on power.

Pheu Thai Party is not off the mark in intimating that the commission is on the side of the junta and pro-military parties. To begin with, the seven commissioners were all appointed with the blessings of the junta.

The junta tailored the writing of the 2017 constitution and its election laws to give it an electoral and governing advantage. The election commission dutifully executes its mandates and has the latitude to decide constituency demarcation, design election ballot papers, assign the numbers to the candidates in each constituency and hand out orange or red cards to disqualify winning candidates. Its impartiality is often called into question.

Although the commission’s preferential performance may have played a part in the Palang Pracharat Party’s success in winning popular votes, credit must also go to former MP stalwarts who defected from Pheu Thai to join Palang Pracharat.

The turncoats are highly influential in their constituencies in the north and northeast Thailand. People in these constituencies remain loyal to their patrons instead of party ideology. Immense cash injected into the campaign as well as cash handouts by the Prayuth government and the junta-backed party were also pivotal. Time and a careful counting of the votes will determine if their decision to switch was a wise one.

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