By: Pithaya Pookaman

In sharp contrast with past Thai polls, the general election now scheduled for March is a contest between two ideological camps: a military-dominated one that seeks to continue the junta’s regime, and the pro-democracy one, which seeks to roll back the junta’s works in a bid to build a genuine democracy and a better future. 

For the junta, which seized power in a military coup in 2014 against a popularly-elected democracy, the election is meant as window dressing to achieve the transition from unelected authoritarianism to electoral authoritarianism and a bureaucratic polity.

Public anger has grown over visible displays of corruption by junta members, including Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, who has appeared in public wearing 25 different high-end watches valued at US$1.5 million.  More than one in five Thais believe the courts are corrupt and four of five think the same of the police, according to a 2017 report by the New York and Copenhagen-based GAN Integrity.

Uncertainty over the date of the election, which has already been postponed four times by the junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, was finally put to rest with the issuance of a Royal Decree on January 23. That was followed on the same day with the announcement by the junta-controlled Election Commission that the election would be officially held on March 24 instead of February 24 as Prayuth had earlier promised. 

The date of the election is consistent with the 2017 constitution which provides that the election must be held within 150 days from December 11, 2018, the date of the promulgation of the organic laws governing the election.

The Royal Decree and the Election commission’s designation of the election date came hot on the heels of an announcement by the Office of the Royal Household that King Vajiralongkorn, King Rama X, would be officially crowned in the coronation ceremony from May 4 to 6.  King Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne upon the passing of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in October 2016 but hasn’t officially been crowned as the country had to observe a year of mourning.

The royal coronation under a democratically elected government would be more appropriate and auspicious than under the present dictatorial regime.  But such will not be the case.  The election scheduled for March 24th will push the election results announcement back to around mid-May and the new government won’t be sworn in before June. 

To the dismay of most Thai people, the coronation will now have to take place under a regime ostracized by the international community and reviled by growing numbers of Thais weary of the dictatorship.

As the election campaign heats up, aspiring political parties of the two ideological camps are giving it their best shot.  Most prominent in the pro-military camp is Palang Pracharat Party (PPP), the People’s State Power Party.  The PPP makes no secret of its support for Prayuth. 

The party’s strength derives from its affiliation with the military and de facto support of the government, which tightly controls all state apparatus as well as the constitutionally safeguarded institutions such as the Election Commission, the Senate, the National Strategy Committee which oversees the infamous 20-year national strategy, the Constitutional Court, and the National Anti-Corruption Commission. These institutions, commonly called ‘independent organs,’ are anything but. They are designed to redirect power from democratic institution to the military-cum-elite establishment that favors semi-fascist governance. 

The PPP does not have to rely much on its own campaigning as Prayuth is already doing it through his roving cabinet meetings, weekly radio addresses, verbal parleying with the press, and the ‘Pracharat project’ (the name from which Palang Pracharat Party derives) of local community development, including free cash handouts from the state budget.

There will be more of such handouts before the election takes place, although they won’t be construed as vote-buying by submissive legal authorities. Prayuth’s favorite repertoire is that everyone owes him a debt of gratitude for bringing peace, calm and security back to the country and for putting an end to political conflict. However, he deliberately ignores the fact that the conflict was unilaterally manufactured by the Democrat Party and elitist establishment with the connivance of the military, conveniently used as the pretext for the military putsch in 2014 to bring down a democratically elected government. Could he also be blinded by the fact that peace is merely a form of coercion to pacify the country and prevent any manner of free expression that he considers harmful to him and his regime?  

Progress is never possible without freedom of expression.  The people have now come to realize that there is no future for them in such kind of peace and security brokered by the military.

The opposing camp is dominated by the Pheu Thai Party which, in the past 20 years, has won every election despite different party names, the first being the Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) formed by Thaksin Shinawatra in 1998. When TRT looked unbeatable in the polls in 2006, the Democrat Party and the elitist establishment connived with the military to bring the government down by a military coup which later led to the dissolution of the TRT. 

The Palang Prachachon Party, TRT’s successor, was similarly dissolved by the court in 2008 at the behest of the military and elite establishment.  Anticipating the fate suffered by its predecessors, the Pheu Thai Party has permitted its members to form allied parties such as Thai Raksa Chart Party, Pheu Chart Party, and Prachachart Party to contest in the election. One of these parties will replace the Pheu Thai Party if the latter were to be dissolved by the court before the election.  

In the event that the Pheu Thai Party is not dissolved, the combined electoral strength of all the four parties could exceed 250 votes to win a majority in the 500-member House of Representatives. However, to form a government, they would have to muster more than 375 votes to elect a prime minister. 

That is because the 2017 Constitution provides that the Parliament comprises 500 elected House MPs and 250 junta-appointed senators, making a total of 750 members in a joint sitting.

The Pheu Thai Party is focusing on pressing economic issues, citing economic hardship and increasing individual debt burdens during the four years of military rule. It insists that the country’s problems have to be solved by experienced professionals, and not by militarists who are only schooled to execute wars. The Thai Raksa Chart and the Pheu Chart Party are also focused on resuscitating the economy by fostering new technology while borrowing successful Thai Rak Thai Party provisions. 

The differences with their big brother Pheu Thai Party are not in the substance but in the nuances of the economic policies.

Other pro-democracy parties that would likely join the Pheu Thai-led coalition are the Future Forward Party and Seri Ruam Thai Party.  The Future Forward Party is expected to do well by virtue of its clean, youthful image unblemished by the usual pork-barrel politics. The party is strong on democratic ideals and on curbing the power of the military. Its policy also focuses on decentralization of power and solving the so-far intractable problem of racial strife in the south of the country.

Political parties that don’t belong to either camp could play a power broker role. These parties include the Democrat Party, the Chart Thai Pattana Party, the Chart Pattana Party, and the Phum Jai Thai Party.  The Democrat Party, with its image in tatters for abandoning democratic norms by using street mobs to incite violence and playing a supporting role in previous coups, began its campaign by denouncing the military regime but could change its rhetoric according to circumstances. 

The Chart Thai Pattana Party declares that it doesn’t intend to make enemies with anyone and can get along with anyone.  This is another way of saying that the party has no scruples to make ‘strange bedfellows’ with the very people who 11 years ago dissolved its predecessor party, the Chart Thai Party. 

The Chart Pattana Party and the Phum Jai Thai Party are keeping the cards close to their chests but could gravitate towards the pro-democracy camp to tip the scale if needed.

The junta and pro-military parties can rely on the junta-crafted 2017 Constitution and an electoral system that give them clear advantage over their political rivals. At the final stage, the pro-military parties can count on the support of the junta-appointed 250 senators as well as the ‘independent organs’ to lay out a red carpet for Prayuth, their chosen one, to step onto another premiership tenure at the head of a coalition government comprising pro-military parties and other middle-of-the-road parties. 

That would be a major setback for democracy and Thailand’s international standing abroad. There will be extensive rationalization and further consolidation of cohesive military-bureaucratic structures at the expense of democratic institutions. On the down side, the government could well be a minority government if MPs from the democratic camp control the House of Representatives and the government stands the risk of being voted out of power.

In another scenario, the pro-democracy parties might rally around Pheu Thai to gain more than 375 parliamentary votes to elect a prime minister who would then form a government despite a bloc vote of the Senate in favor of Prayuth and the pro-military parties. 

It is also quite possible that some senators might break ranks in case of a pro-democracy landslide and decide not to vote en masse for Prayuth, hence giving the Pheu Thai Party-led coalition a comfortable majority. 

In such scenario, the government would be well respected abroad and the economy hopefully would improve substantially under rational economic policy.  However, the government will have to operate under the constrictive oversight of unelected and constitutionally enshrined institutions.  It would be seriously hamstrung by a 20-year national strategy previously written by the military which could serve as an instrument to derail the government’s execution of its policies or to even to bring it down through oblique interpretation of the law by the so-called independent organs. 

The military-cum-elite establishment can employ these independent organs as external checks on the legislative branch and the executive branch to inhibit democracy and precipitate instability in which it can exploit as in the past.

The forthcoming polls are being held against the backdrop of rapidly changing socio-economic conditions and the challenge posed by big power rivalry and trade wars.  The dictum ‘Thai way of doing things’ or ‘Thai-style democracy’ that is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of the semi-fascist groups in Thailand is no longer relevant in the 21st century as it cannot rectify the complex economic problems of the modern day nor make Thailand competitive in the global economy. 

The junta’s 20-year national strategy is a case in point.  It is meant to freeze the country for decades, shielding itself from democratic forces and economic liberalization.  This election is indeed pivotal time for Thailand and the Thai people.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel