In recent weeks, Thailand’s ruling military junta has taken a number of steps to host the country’s first election since 2014, with the Election Commission announcing that they would roll back restrictions on political speech and the announcement that Parliamentary elections would take place on February 24. The junta in September announced that political parties could begin organizing. Former Royal Thai Army General, junta leader and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has had free reign in the country since the May 2014 coup d’etat ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Red Shirt leader and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. With the junta in clear command of the country, the question most asked among Thai watchers, is why would the junta hold snap elections so soon? This article attempts to answer four critical questions in preparation for the February election.
Who is likely to become Prime Minister after February?
Prayut, under the most likely electoral math. The 2017 Constitution, which was last attempt among many to secure power for the junta, is designed to prevent the rise of another Thaksin Shinawatra, or prevent the opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP) from reaching the premiership in 2019. Voters in the 2019 election will only vote for Lower House members, which total 500, while 250 seats in the Upper House (or Senate) are comprised of junta-selected military brass and bureaucrats. Quite simply, if the junta were not to win a plurality of seats in the lower house election, it would still only need 126 seats to obtain the required 376 seats to name the next Prime Minister of Thailand, without forming a coalition with another political party. PTP had asked the Democrat Party about a possible coalition, but it was rejected outright. The junta has also made attempts to recruit former PTP politicians and make inroads with populist policy proposals in Thailand’s North, the political stronghold of the Shinawatras. The problem has been that PTP has failed to find a leader who can garner as much support as Thaksin in the rural North or mobilize the same level of political support that will be required to achieve an outright majority.
What influence does the Thai monarchy have over the upcoming election?
King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) assumed the role of king of the Chakri Dynasty as of December 2016, following the death of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed in October 2016. He was Thailand’s longest reigning monarch and arbiter of key political decisions in the country since the early 1970s. Thailand will coronate the reign of Vajiralongkorn on May 4, with a ceremony that will be held with other world leaders and key diplomats. The monarchy will want to ensure a timely and event-free coronation process. In early September, Vajiralongkorn endorsed two key bills that are required for the country to hold elections. The bills clarify the rules for the lower house election and the procedures for the selection of Senators. Thailand’s new Constitution states that an election must be held within 150 days of the enactment of that law, which put the junta in a slight bind. This means that the latest date for election could have been in May. The monarchy also wants to ensure maximum visibility for the coronation, and the election puts a greater spotlight on Thailand–as well as pressure on the junta to ensure a timely and orderly electoral process.
Will the elections be free and fair?
On many levels, not at all. The most significant factor is organization. Political parties, including the PTP have only been allowed to register since May 2018 and the ban on political speech was not lifted until weeks ago, so any opposition party will have a difficult time mobilizing support or coordinating efforts to unseat Prayut. The constitution is the largest obstacle to political parties seeking to win a coalition or outright government, due to the Upper Chamber being entirely comprised of junta loyalists and military brass. It also features a new voting system that favors the junta heavily, allowing people to vote for both individual MPs and party-list candidates. This will make it much more difficult for the PTP, the upstart Thai Raksa Chart party led by a slew of former Thaksin supporters, and the new Future Forward party to form coalitions.
Thai elections have always been somewhat unfair. When the PTP won the 2014 election, which was marred by political instability and interference from right-wing political groups, it was almost immediately declared invalid by the boycotting Democrat Party. More free and fair elections in 2011 were also marred by allegations of vote buying. Lastly, the regime has withstood international political pressure from the United States under the Obama Administration and from the European Union to restore Thailand back to a functioning democracy, but those calls have fallen silent under the Trump Administration who have held to a policy of non-interference.
How likely is the prospect of electoral violence?
With Thailand chairing ASEAN in 2019, the junta can ill afford repeats of political instability that have plagued past election cycles. Two indications suggest violence is likely in some form. Recently, insurgents of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) launched several attacks in the southernmost provinces of Thailand, which suggests it wants to send a signal to the incoming government it has the capacity to escalate violence prior to February 24. Second, the cycle of electoral violence in Thailand is rather frequent. In 2014, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a right-wing movement led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban launched a political boycott of national elections that could have elected another PTP government, disrupting voting in several key areas of the country. The current regime had used electoral violence and past corruption as a justification for the May 2014 coup. Any outbreak of street violence by minority parties, by PTP could be used as grounds for yet another putsch.
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.
Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.