Since Thailand’s last proper election in 2011, the country witnessed the exile of its former prime minister, a coup d'état, a new constitution and a new monarch – what could change in the upcoming election?
While nobody knows for sure, key political players in Thailand have made their moves. On March 24, 2019, 50 million eligible Thai voters can hit the polls after nearly five years under a military-backed government to decide between two political factions: “pro-junta” and “pro-democracy”.
The pro-junta faction mostly consists of the Palang Pracharat Party and the Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT) Party. The Palang Pracharat Party is led by Thailand’s former Minister of Industry Uttama Savanayana, which is backing General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the incumbent prime minister and leader of the junta. The ACT Party is led by Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the anti-government protest in 2014 that paved way for a coup d'état launched by the current junta.
The pro-democracy faction mostly consists of the Pheu Thai Party, the Thai Raksa Chart Party and the Future Forward Party. Both the Pheu Thai Party and the Thai Raksa Chart Party are affiliated with the exiled but still influential former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, while the Future Forward Party is led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, an auto parts tycoon who is aggressively advocating for progressive politics.
The Democrat Party, a traditionally conservative and royalist party, remains in the race but has yet to declare its support for either faction. Suthep himself was formerly the deputy leader of this party; however, his involvement in the anti-government protest has fragmented the party and created a split between hardline and moderate conservatives.
On February 8, 2019, seemingly out of the blue, the Thai Raksa Chart Party announced that Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, would be the party’s candidate for prime minister. In a country where the royal family is deeply revered and untouchable in politics, this came as a surprise to even the most seasoned observers as Thaksin-affiliated parties were long accused by hardline conservatives of harbouring anti-royalist sentiments.
The excitement proved to be short-lived, however. Within 12 hours of the announcement, the King released a strongly worded letter that rebuked Princess Ubolratana’s candidacy. Additionally, her candidacy was swiftly rejected by the Election Commission and the Thai Raksa Chart party was eventually dissolved on March 7, for undertaking “actions considered hostile to the constitutional monarchy”. Although Princess Ubolratana relinquished her royal title in 1972, the palace still very much considers her a member of the royal family.
Due to the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws, the reason behind the royal family’s public maneuvering is seldom discussed. Nevertheless, analysts agree that Thaksin’s political gambit to win votes from the country’s conservative base was misjudged and appears to have backfired badly.
Complicated election/governance structure adds to uncertainty
In 2016, the junta drafted a new constitution that critics say would tighten military rule in Thailand. Among other things, the constitution calls for a government structure where the Upper House consists of 250 members who are entirely selected by the junta while the Lower House consists of 500 members who are democratically elected.
The Upper House has veto power over any Lower House attempts to amend the constitution in the future. In addition, subsequent governments would be mandated to follow a junta-created 20-year National Strategy or risk being impeached by the National Strategy Committee, which consists mostly of junta members.
This constitution was approved in 2016 through a controversial referendum; critics questioned its legitimacy by pointing to the suppression of opposing views as well as the enactment of martial law in certain areas during the referendum.
What this all means is that a simple majority by the pro-democracy faction, assuming they can agree on a coalition, may not be enough to form a government. Alternatively, the pro-junta faction would only need 126 seats in the Lower House, or around 25% of the votes, to do so.
As it stands, analysts expect the Pheu Thai Party to win the popular vote due to the support they continue to receive from the grassroot poor in the populous north and northeast provinces. However, the junta will likely remain in control through various proxies and mechanisms already set in place.
Three wildcards that could still change the course of Thai politics
Democrat Party’s influence. Although historically more associated with the conservative wing of Thai politics, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former prime minister and current leader of the party, has openly criticised the junta in recent weeks in what seems to be an effort to strengthen the party’s reputation as a moderate. Meanwhile, the party has a strong support base in the southern provinces and may win a sizable share of parliamentary seats even without formally choosing a side. Further, it appears that the party is open to form a coalition government with either political faction. Local analysts are beginning to describe the party as a potential deciding force for which faction gets to form a government after the election.
Future Forward Party’s rise. Founded just a year ago, the party is very savvy in its use of social media and ability to galvanise disenfranchised youths. The party regularly draws a large crowd of young people, many of them students, by pushing a strong anti-military and anti-establishment message, even stronger than that of the Pheu Thai Party.
This rhetoric may be testing the junta’s patience. Since emerging as the Future Forward Party leader, Thanathorn has claimed to have experienced various forms of intimidation from the junta, including death threats. One recent highly publicised incident occurred on February 20, 2019, when the Thai police announced that they intend to take legal action against Thanathorn for violating the country’s notorious Computer Crime Act by “uploading false information” about the junta. This reportedly could land Thanathorn up to five years in jail.
Due to Thanathorn’s popularity among the young and enthusiastic crowd, his prosecution, or worse, could lead to deeper anti-junta sentiments and possibly unrest.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s official coronation. On May 4, 2019, Thais will see their first royal coronation in over 60 years. Scheduled to take place after the election, the coronation is sure to prompt maximum security measures in the buildup to the event. This serves as a ready platform for the military to exert more power regardless of the election results.
The man to watch in this case is General Apirat Kongsompong, Thailand’s new Army chief. General Apirat is a well-known royalist who is a member of the King’s Guard military clique, described in the media as “at the very heart of the royalist military establishment.”
Having been appointed in October 2018, General Apirat gave a bombshell interview in the same month by declaring he would not hesitate to launch another coup d'état if political turmoil resumes. (Interestingly, General Apirat is the son of General Sunthorn Kongsompong, the former Army chief who himself launched a coup d'état in 1991.) By February 2019, General Apirat had to fight off a rumour that he is planning to stage a coup d'état. As we get closer to May 2019, emotions are expected to run even higher; General Apirat’s actions during this period will have a major say in the country’s political stability going forward.
Despite the uncertainty, the election is pushing ahead with no clear signs that it will be further postponed. That said, the situation on the ground is constantly developing and further risks in Thailand’s political future cannot be ruled out.