Amidst Uncertainty, Two Key Takeaways from the Thai Elections

On March 24, Thais went to the polls for the first time in eight years. Most Thais approached the election with a mix of apprehension, scepticism, and hope. After nearly five years of military rule, there was little doubt that the junta and its leader, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, would remain in power for the foreseeable future. The preliminary report by analysts based in Bangkok and the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), an international monitoring group, describe a campaign environment that decidedly favored the military junta. It all suggested that the military was set on staying in power. Nevertheless, many Thais regarded the election as a referendum on military-rule and hoped that it would give a sign on whether Thailand would move forward with democracy or not.

However, preliminary results painted a complicated picture. While the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party won the most votes (7.66 million), beating its main rival the Pheu Thai Party (7.19 million), most voters put their support behind parties that had denounced military rule. Close to 15.49 million voted in favour of pro-democracy parties, while  8.30 million voted for pro-military ones. A further 7.94 million people voted for parties that had no clear stance on military rule.

Both sides were quick to claim a mandate for forming a government, though neither had a clear majority to do so. A couple of days after the elections, the Pheu Thai Party announced a coalition with six partners to form the next government. According to its own estimates, the coalition would have around 255 seats, giving it a slim majority in the lower house of Parliament. Even so, the most likely scenario is that Prayuth continues on as Prime Minister with support of the military appointed Senate, forming a minority government that will face stiff opposition.

Despite this uncertainty, two things have become clear: the military has managed to successfully entrench itself as a permanent fixture in Thai politics at a time when the political landscape of Thailand is undergoing notable changes. The junta and the military have created a political system that ensures they will be remain in power for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the decline of Thailand’s traditional parties and rise of new ones suggest political preferences are changing.  

The Military is Here to Stay

Since the 2014 coup, the junta and the military have taken a number of steps to secure its political power. According to Allen Hicken, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Political Science, the 2017 Constitution has become the primary tool the junta has used to entrench its power. Hicken has dubbed the 2017 as a “containment constitution” since it seeks to curb the power of elected politicians through a number of unelected institutions, including a powerful Senate whose members are appointed by the military.

By mid-May, Prayuth and the military will appoint the 250 members of the Senate. These senators, together with the 500 newly elected MPs, will then choose the next prime minister. Assuming all 250 military appointed senators vote for him, Prayuth will only need 126 MPs to clinch the 376 votes needed to continue on as Prime Minister— a number that he increasingly appears to have.

Thailand’s 20-year National Strategy is a further source of power for the military. The National Strategy limits the scope of any potential legislation that is proposed. Last October, the Bangkok Post reported that any policy proposed by a political party would have to be in line with framework set out in the National Strategy. The junta-appointed Senate will be charged with monitoring compliance with the National Strategy.

Furthermore, as Eugènie Mérieau, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Göttingen notes, an array of judicial and quasi-judicial bodies exist that can initiate criminal charges against unwanted elected leaders. Meanwhile, the military-appointed Senate will have the power to impeach elected officials and ban them from politics for five years. Even without these bodies, anti-junta politicians are facing challenges. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the newly-formed Future Forward Party, was summoned by police last week on sedition charges. It is the second criminal case that has been opened against him.

The Election Commission has also been regarded as a tool of the military junta. It has come under fire for perceived irregularities during the election and suspicions that the elections results are being manipulated. Furthermore, the Election Commission hasn’t announced yet how some MP seats (those on the party list) will be allocated. This could significantly change the distribution of MP seats in Parliament.

Moreover, Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong has implied that the military won’t support a government that is unamicable to its understanding of “nation, religion, and monarchy,” a comment that many interpreted as being directed towards the Pheu Thai and Future Forward Party.

Shifting Political Camps

The political preferences of Thais also appear to be changing. Indeed, support for traditional parties declined markedly in the 2019 election. Even the Pheu Thai, the party that has won every election in Thailand since 2001, experienced a drop in support. The Pheu Thai certainly remains a political heavyweight, but in 2011 Pheu Thai gained more that 50% of votes in twenty-eight provinces it fielded candidates. In 2019, it failed to capture 50% in any province.

But the decline of traditional parties is most clearly seen in the Democrat Party. Thailand’s oldest party was slammed at the polls last month. In 2011, the Democrat Party was able to secure some 11.4 million in the popular vote. This time around, it managed to only win 3.9 million while losing its stronghold Bangkok and key provinces in the South.

Newcomers likewise made their mark. The Future Forward Party saw remarkable success during the election, coming into third place and beating the long-established Democrat Party. Thanathorn, the head of the party, has become something of a social media sensation among younger Thai voters, especially following the sedition charges levied against him.

But while some change is on the horizon, strong conclusions shouldn’t be drawn from the election results. While the international monitor ANFREL didn’t find any major failings in the conduct of the elections itself, it pointed to much larger issues in the campaign environment such as the misuse of government resources. Moreover, the Pheu Thai deliberately split itself into various proxies to overcome gerrymandering efforts. These parties included the Pheu Tham, Pheu Chart, and the Thai Raksa Chart Party, which was dissolved after it nominated Princess Ubolratana as its prime minister candidate.

Although the military has largely been successful in establishing a place for itself in Thai politics at a time when support for traditional parties appears to be waning, the election results point to an enduring continuity in Thai politics, polarization. As Prajak Kongkirait argues, polarization in Thailand reflects competing notions of legitimacy and ideology among ordinary Thais.

While this polarization has often been cast as being pro or anti-Thaksin, or “yellow shirt” and “red shirt”, it seems that political cleavages in Thailand now appear to reflect a pro-military vs a pro-democracy stance. Both sides are pushing hard to form a government. But with neither side capturing a clear majority and willing to compromise, Thailand has a rocky road ahead.

Image: Per Meistrup [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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