The Thai political crisis has only deepened following the May 2014 coup. The military claimed it was saving Thailand from slipping into a new round of political violence after months of anti-Yingluck Shinawatra protests. But, in reality it sought to take control over politics in the twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s almost 70-year reign.
For decades, the monarchy and the military have cooperated closely to create a political environment in which governments must be kept weak and vulnerable. Should governments appear challenging or threatening, as Thaksin Shinawatra’s did, they were to be overthrown in a coup.
But the authoritative era of King Bhumibol is coming to an end. His looming departure has elevated anxiety levels among the traditional elites, of which the military is a part. This has driven the military to intervene in politics at this critical period. It aims to manage the royal succession to defend the interests of the old elites. Failing that, should the military be forced to step aside from politics — either by domestic or international pressure — it aims to ensure that the political infrastructure it leaves behind can be used to maintain the military’s political position.
Through this process, the military is sponsoring the drafting of Thailand’s new constitution, which is designed to give extra-parliamentary institutions — such as the Senate and independent organizations — power over future elected governments. The junta-endorsed constitution will stipulate that future prime ministers need not be elected, thus paving the way for an outsider handpicked by the military. So the coup leader and current self-appointed Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha could return to the premiership after the election.
Future members of parliaments can also be independent candidates, purportedly to break up the domination of politics by powerful political parties. A weak and loose coalition government may emerge after next year’s election.
From this point of view, the upcoming election will not solve the political crisis. Indeed, it will drag Thailand back into the vicious circle in which traditional elites have continued to belittle the voice of the majority of the electorate. The military has announced that there would be no referendum on the constitution. It is therefore anticipated that, in the post-election period, a wave of protests against the new political structure could hit the streets of Bangkok again.
Thailand could be stuck in a climate of uncertainty in which the military fiercely protects the status quo. According to the Succession Law, the only heir to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, must be crowned. Not much loved by the public, nor respected by royal courtiers, Vajiralongkorn may find that the path toward his enthronement is a rocky one.