27 February 2019

Thailand’s elections: a consolidation of military-ruled democracy

After much postponement, Thai elections will take place on 24 March. However, it is unlikely that the outcome will dilute the military’s role in governing the country, as constitutional and electoral provisions will ensure it will continue to dominate the country’s politics for the foreseeable future.

General elections in Thailand are scheduled on 24 March, following multiple postponements since 2017 by the country’s military government – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – which has been in power since a bloodless coup in May 2014. Despite the supposed handover of power from the military to an elected civilian government after the elections, the armed forces will likely continue to dominate Thai politics for the foreseeable future, largely due to a controversial new constitution approved in 2016 that gives it broad governing powers. Under these conditions, incumbent Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan Ocha will be the front-runner for the premiership as he will contest the elections through the pro-junta Palang Pracharath party, which was established in March 2018 to serve as Prayuth’s political vehicle.

Under the new constitutional and electoral changes, 250 out of 750 seats in parliament are reserved for the military, while 500 seats will be up for election. This means that the pro-junta camp will need only 126 MPs to secure victory, as the military-appointed senators will almost certainly back Prayuth. The new electoral system has also been deliberately designed to negate the influence of large existing mainstream parties – such as the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) of exiled former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra and the Democrat Party (DP) – as the votes for losing candidates at the district level will also be tallied for the overall results, potentially allowing less popular parties to obtain a larger share of the vote. Such electoral engineering makes it highly unlikely that any party will win enough seats on its own to secure the premiership, allowing the pro-junta camp a much easier path to victory.

Concerted attempts to counter these electoral handicaps by the opposition have largely failed. Realising the new system disadvantages large parties, PTP-aligned leaders created a new party called Thai Raksa Chart and decided to split the seats contested by them to attempt to win more seats than if the PTP contested the elections on its own. Also, in an unprecedented move, Thai Raksa Chart announced on 8 February that Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn, would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the elections. The decision caused shockwaves and would have blown the election wide-open, as the royal family is revered in the country and strict lese-majeste laws against criticising them would have made it very difficult for the pro-junta camp to campaign against her. The opposition’s optimism was short-lived however, as the Election Commission (EC) swiftly disqualified her candidacy, backed by a royal decree from King Vajiralongkorn indicating the royal family is above politics and any direct involvement would be highly inappropriate and unconstitutional. As such, the move has ultimately backfired and there is a strong possibility that Thai Raksa Chart will be deregistered by the EC under the pretext of contravening the constitution, which will place the anti-junta opposition in an even more precarious position.

Given these developments, it is very unlikely that anti-junta parties will be able to mount a serious challenge to Prayuth’s election run. The almost assured victory of Prayuth and his junta allies will ensure the military continues to play a central role in governing the country while democracy takes a back seat. Even though the PTP still enjoys strong support among the rural masses in the country’s north, it will not be enough to counter the considerable electoral disadvantages it has been dealt. The DP, which has previously been backed by royalists and conservatives in Bangkok and southern Thailand, is also likely to see its influence diminish if it does not align itself with the pro-junta camp. In addition, it remains to be seen if new parties like Future Forward party, popular among the youth and Bangkok middle-class, can translate their popularity into enough votes to challenge the pro-junta establishment parties.While victory by the pro-junta camp is almost certain, Prayuth and the military remain deeply polarising actors in Thai politics. As such, his expected electoral success will not allow the junta to secure democratic legitimacy, given the deeply flawed electoral process, meaning that strong undercurrents working against the junta will remain for the considerable future.

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