By: Pithaya Pookaman

Thailand was once known to the world as the Land of Smiles. When tourism promotion was the order of the day, the term “Amazing Thailand” was invented, but only to be later reworded as “Unseen Thailand.”

Perhaps the discarded “Amazing Thailand” could be revived to characterize Thailand’s predicament, a country currently undergoing the latest political re-transformation, which represents a regression from the political transformation of 1932 when the country was transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and the Thai people were able to exercise their fundamental rights in an election for the first time in Thai history.

The initial transformation enabled the country to embark on what was hoped to be a permanent and irreversible democratic institution that would place Thailand on par with Japan and other European countries with constitutional monarchies. However, the founding fathers of Thai democracy made a fatal flaw by not reforming the military establishment to make it consistent with the democratic principle that puts the military under the control of an elected government.

A democratic system without adequate checks on the military, unlike other constitutional monarchies, is doomed from the start. The military has no scruples in violating the constitution and abrogating them altogether by staging numerous coups d’etat and running the country with absolute power.

Another feature of “amazing” Thailand is the acquiescence of the urban middle class to military dictatorship which it views as the embodiment of medieval Thai values of benevolent paternalism. Notwithstanding its natural convergence of interest with the authoritarian regime with its heavy reliance on bureaucracy and big businesses, the Thai urban middle class has an intrinsic suspicion of democracy and politicians whom it views as self-serving bandits.

Acton’s old dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely has repeatedly been proven true by authoritarian regimes in Thailand. Military dictatorship is metaphorically a poison tree. Together with the misguided middle class and the Thai oligarchy, they have all set the stage for the institutionalization of military dictatorship under the current 2017 constitution. This limits the functioning of democracy and the role of political parties and incorporates the Senate whose members are handpicked by the junta.

To ensure the military stranglehold on power and the continuance of authoritarian policy, future governments, whether they are headed by elected or unelected prime ministers, will have to adhere to the junta’s 20-year development plan or face legal consequences. In short, the 2017 constitution with its enabling laws or “organic laws” and all junta-controlled state apparatus are all the toxic fruits of a poison tree.

The organic laws are in the final stage of being promulgated in order for the general election to take place. All eyes are now on the much-anticipated general election as well as on when and if it will take place. The much-publicized junta’s :road map: towards a general election has taken many detours and the election timeline has been readjusted many times since the junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha pledged to hold an election after assuming premiership in 2014.

Singing While We Work

Upon seizing power from the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Prayuth was hard pressed in trying to allay the people’s fear that the election would not be forthcoming. He even composed a song “We will keep our promise but just give us a little more time,” which flooded the air waves during the entire first year of his administration.Today, his song has been taken off the air to be replaced on the internet by songs from election enthusiasts that ridicule Prayuth’s broken promises.

Under pressure from the international community and the “soft sanctions” imposed by many Western countries including the European Union, Prayuth met UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in 2015 and promised him that an election would be held in the same year.Predictably, the year went by and not even a whisper of an election was heard from the junta leader.

To mend his credibility and to make good his promise, Prayuth went to Japan in 2015 and promised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the election would be held at the end of 2015 or early 2016. At the meeting, Abe also urged Prayuth to return to the civilian rule as soon as possible.

Stalling on Elections

True to form, 2016 transpired without even a hint of an election. Meanwhile, a premeditated rejection of the constitution’s first draft by the National Legislative Assembly (a parliament created by the junta) during the same period scuttled the road map and the election timeline was left dangling, pending the completion of the constitution’s second (and final) draft a year later.

In October 2017, Prayuth visited the US and promised President Donald Trump that an election would take place in November 2018. The news was greeted with cautious optimism in Thailand. The people expected that Prayuth’s promise to the leader of the world’s foremost super power would be taken seriously for once.

They were wrong. Hot on the heels of his meeting with Trump, the junta leader contradicted his pledge to Trump by stating that an election would instead be held 150 days after the promulgation of the organic laws which is expected to be in place by the end of this year. He later reiterated that the election would certainly be held in February 2019, taking into due consideration the final passage of the relevant organic laws.

It should be mentioned that there are four organic laws which have to be enacted under the 2017 constitution. The organic laws serve as the template for the novel but complicated election system designed by the junta. The one that pertains to the holding of an election is the organic law on the election of the members of the House of Representatives (MPs). The other three organic laws pertain to the senators, the political parties, and the election commission.

The duly completed organic law relating to the election of the MPs has already been submitted for royal approval which is the last stage in the process before it can be promulgated as law. Assuming that the royal signature is obtained by September, a 90-day period is needed before the law can take effect. The 90-day period would end in December, which means that the law wouldthen take effect, from which an election has to be held within 150 days.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the general election could theoretically be held any time from December 2018 to May 2019.

On June 25, the junta leadership hosted a meeting to discuss the holding of the election which was attended by all political parties – except the Pheu Thai Party, a reincarnation of Thai Rak Thai Party formed by Thaksin Shinawatra, which remains the biggest political party, and which won the last general election – and the newly formed Future Forward Party. Both parties are unequivocal in their determination to steer the country along genuine democratic path devoid of military interference.

The junta’s meeting set out guidelines for the election in accordance with the election time frame above. It suggested three possible dates for the election that would fall on the last Sundays of the months during the aforesaid 150-day period. The earliest election date would be Sunday, February  24, 2019. If this is not possible, then the next possible date would be Sunday, April 28, but not later than May 26, which would still be within the 150-day time frame set by law.

Million-dollar Question

With the election date well within sight, a million-dollar question will be whether the junta will abide by its stated timeline, given that the promises made have never been kept. Prayuth had recently threw a spanner into the works by declaring that the election could only take place after the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn but he was silent on the date of coronation. His utterance has not been collaborated by the Office of the Royal Household, thus leaving many questions unanswered.

Be that as it may, some measure of the junta’s lost credibility can be salvaged if and when it lifts the ban on political activities and relaxes its grip on the freedom of expression. Hitherto, the political parties will be kept in limbo while the military-affiliated parties campaign actively without a hitch.

Prayuth himself has taken full advantage of the ban to get a head start campaigning through mobile cabinet meetings and frequent trips to the countryside while his surrogates are busy “absorbing” former MPs from the main parties into a military party named the Palang Pracharat Party (the name taken from Prayuth’s Pracharat initiative) by employing stick and carrot.

They claim success in penetrating Pheu Thai Party’s stronghold in the North and Northeast Thailand.They hope that the 150-day window in the election time frame would help the junta’s anointed party to garner enough former MPs from their “absorption tactic” to win the election or at least to win a sizable number of House seats to act as a core party to form a coalition government with Prayuth as the head.

If the Palang Pracharat Party fails to garner enough former MPs into its fold, it is expected that the election will be further delayed.For the junta, the bottom line is that there will be no election until the junta is confident of winning.If a forthcoming election ushers in a government led by the Pheu Thai Party again, then the military coup of 2014 which entailed a risk of being prosecuted as treason would be all for nothing. Furthermore, the four years of meticulous crafting a constitution and enabling laws to ensure the junta’s continuance of power would also be all for nothing.

Within the election time frame, the junta may also employ a more aggressive tactic by dissolving the Pheu Thai Party using its controlled state apparatus and manipulating the already distorted judicial system.This tactic has been fully used in the past by previous juntas.With Pheu Thai Party out of the picture, the path is clear for the junta to pull all the stops to win an election through its nominated party and form a post-election government with Prayuth as prime minister.

Whatever happens in the next few months will be pivotal in defining Thailand’s political landscape, which will not necessarily bode well for democratic development in Thailand.

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