By: Pithaya Pookaman

As the final vote counts in Thailand’s March 24 general election are tabulated, intense, concentrated political horse-trading is going on by both the pro-democracy and pro-junta factions, with both sides trying to gain advantage to form a government.

The Pheu Thai Party, backed by the ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is claiming victory with the most seats in the Lower House, beating the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, which took second place, although there is no final count yet.

The fact that Pheu Thai has done as well as it has in an election widely regarded as ruthlessly rigged to support the junta is a mark of the disdain the population increasingly feels for a government regarded as both corrupt and incompetent.

Pheu Thai leaders are speaking with other pro-democracy and middle-of-the-road parties, even enticing them with the offer of a prime ministerial post, contending that the party with most seats should form the government as has always been the norm despite a constitution rigged to keep Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in place.

Meanwhile, Palang Pracharat, of which Prayuth is the candidate to serve another term, is challenging Pheu Thai in a race to form a government by relying on the 250-member junta-appointed Senate as well as other pro-military and middle-of-the-road parties. The party that can garner 376 parliamentary votes, which constitutes a majority in the 750-member bicameral Parliament, will be able to form a government with its prime ministerial candidate endorsed by the Parliament.

In its bid to form a government, Pheu Thai can count on the support of the pro-democracy Future Forward Party which came in third, thanks to the first-time young voters, as well as the support of some middle-of-the-road parties. Prayuth, on the other hand, will only need a handful of MPs from other parties to reach a minimum requirement of 126 seats to return him as Prime Minister and to form a government. Prayuth will have 250-member Senate in his pocket that he can rely upon in the crucial parliamentary vote.

However, being able to form a government is not the same as controlling a majority in the House of Representatives. Prayuth would need at least 251 of 500 total House votes. To achieve that number, he will have to cobble together all the like-minded parties as well as the middle-of-the-road ones.

The support of the Democrat Party, which must swallow its pride when it trails even an upstart Future Forward Party, would be essential but not enough. Prayuth will have to solicit the support of other key middle-of-the-road parties including Phumjai Thai Party and Chart Thai Pattana Party. Even with their combined strength, it is still doubtful if a majority in the Lower House can be achieved.     

Failing to control the house of representatives would make Prayuth’s government a minority one as it would have to face the pro-democracy front which has a great voice in lower house. Under the new 2017 constitution, The Pheu Thai Party and pro-democracy MPs can block any legislation by the government or even bring it down by no-confidence votes. Prayuth cannot count on the support of the Senate during the house debates. He would be helpless without arbitrary power provided by article 44 of the Interim Constitution which he has been using with impunity.

Last Sunday’s general election was reportedly fraught with confusion and irregularities. There were reports on unstable vote counts by the Election Commission, which gave no explanation on the disparities. In some cases, the number of ballots seemed to exceed the number of voters. There were also errors in reports of tallies sent from local officials that could make the result outrageously inaccurate, feeding into prevalent suspicions of an unfair and rigged election. Furthermore, there were unprecedented delays in disclosing the result by the EC. Election observers were also troubled by a high number of invalid ballots, about 1.9 million in all, across the country.

The Thai general election is like a replay of the famous 1965 Hollywood’s slapstick comedy “The Great Race” featuring the maniacal villain trying to thwart the hero to win the race. Equally as melodramatic, the election was rigged from the beginning with the promulgation of the junta-crafted 2017 Constitution and its election laws. The junta used every trick in the book (and off the book) to undermine the Pheu Thai Party and pro-democracy parties by oblique application of the law, intimidation and harassment of opposing candidates, vote rigging, and dissolution of the pro-Thaksin Thai Raksa Chart Party.

The Election Commission will officially announce the result of the election on May 9 which is well within 60 days after the election date as provided by law. The House of Representatives will be convened on May 23 to elect the Speaker of the House who will also function as the President of the Parliament. This will be followed by a joint session of the 750-member bicameral parliament to elect a prime minister. If no political party with the support of other lawmakers can muster 376 votes, there will be a deadlock and the parliament must initiate a process to elect an ‘outsider’ who is not a candidate of any party to be prime minister.

Failing yet to find a prime minister, Prayuth will stay on with all his arbitrary powers still intact. The Thais would then be left with two undesirable choices: an elected Prayuth or the same unelected Prayuth as head of an authoritarian regime.

Given that Prayuth is elected by the joint parliamentary session, he will proceed to form a government. It is expected that the new government will be sworn in early June after the royal coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, scheduled for 4-6 May this year as Prayuth is in no hurry to assume the position he already occupies.

Even if the Pheu Thai Party could muster the necessary 376 parliamentary votes and form a government, its latitude of action would be severely confined by junta-mandated 20-year national strategy, the Senate, and the state institutions previously appointed by the junta that could topple the Pheu Thai-led government under a slightest misdemeanor.

The dubious election result that may usher in an elected authoritarian regime is reminiscent of Nicolas Maduro’s electoral victory over pro-democracy parties in Venezuela. Whether Thailand will drift into political instability and chaos like Venezuela in protest of Prayuth’s unfair election tactics and undemocratic constitution remains to be seen.

For more than four years, the military regime has used arbitrary power and heavy-handed measures to undermine pro-democracy forces and had often been criticized by the international community and human rights agencies for its blatant human rights abuses.

The regime’s use of coercion and intimidation has hitherto brought a semblance of peace and stability to the country albeit at the cost of the people’s freedom and economic malaise.

If the next government is to be an elected authoritarian regime, it is expected that there will be no significant improvement in the human rights situation, let alone the establishment of a genuine democracy in Thailand. The biggest loser will not be the Pheu Thai Party or the pro-democracy forces, but the Thai people themselves as they see their hopes and aspirations for a better life being dashed by an election manipulated by the junta under the self-serving constitution and election laws which do not respect the will of the people.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador. A regular contributor to Asia Sentinel, he resides in Bangkok.