Democracy Thai-style takes time

Two and a half years after succeeding his father, Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn will finally be crowned. One of his first formal duties will be to swear in a new civilian government, following five years of military rule. Elections were held on March 24 but the results have yet to be announced. Nicholas Nugent explains the delay

The military junta that seized power in Thailand six years ago says it is ready to hand back power to a civilian government. Towards that end they have drawn up a new constitution which, critics say, seems designed to keep the military in power – or at least to exclude the faction from which they seized power.

One of the chief contenders for prime minister is former general Prayut Chan-Ocha, who has held that post since the 2014 coup d’état. He has dropped his military title and now wants to continue in the post as a civilian. He is the candidate of the Palang Pracha Rath (PPRP), a party created by the army which did well in the March 24 election, offering voters a choice between traditional-style political leadership and disguised military rule.

The election also revived the rivalry between the two main civilian factions, the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. The Red Shirts support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in an earlier 2006 coup and now lives in exile. They are seen as liberal, command a strong following in rural areas, and were represented at the election by the Pheu Thai Party, though other parties are also sympathetic to their cause. Opposing them are the Yellow Shirts, city-based traditionalists who represent more affluent members of society. Their better political vehicle is the Democrat Party.

It seems that a battle royal is going on behind the scenes to block Thaksin sympathisers

While the army purports to be independent, it has made no secret of its determination to block a return to power by Mr Thaksin or his supporters, who have won every election over the past 20 years. The coup which brought them to power followed the collapse of a government led by Mr Thaksin’s sister, Ms Yingluk Shinawatra.

The new constitution itself was on trial at the election. Critics say it tilts in favour of the military, who were in control at all stages, from the lifting of the ban on political campaigning in January to policing the campaign. No mention was allowed of the royal family, for example, since the King is meant to be above politics.

Also the junta appoints the entire upper house, 250 seats in a parliament numbering 750 in total – a device it may have borrowed from Myanmar, where one quarter of parliamentary seats are filled by the armed forces. The upper house will be involved in the selection of Thailand’s next prime minister if the lower house fails to give a majority to one candidate, potentially giving junta-appointed delegates a decisive role. However, if they select a candidate who does not have majority support in the elected house, that person will find it hard to govern.

Prime Minister Prayut will have been pleased that provisional election result gave his PPRP 8.4 million votes, ahead of the Thaksin-backing Pheu Thai’s 7.9 million. He will have been less pleased that Pheu Thai’s leading candidate for prime minister, Ms Sudarat Keyuraphan, a health minister under Mr Thaksin, announced that a coalition of seven parties give her the support of 255 members out of the lower house total of 500. The Democrat Party of the Yellow Shirts did not fare well, so once again the result is perceived as a victory for former premier Thaksin.

CLASHING COLOURS: The March election revived the conflict between Thailand’s Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts
CLASHING COLOURS: The March election revived the conflict between Thailand’s Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts

However, these results are provisional and await the Election Commission’s endorsement, which takes time because of a mixed system of first-past-the-post and party list allocations by proportional representation. It seems that a battle royal is going on behind the scenes to block Thaksin sympathisers and ensure that generals keep control of the country.

Voters are not even confident that the expressed will of the people will prevail. Consider what has happened since the election. The leader of Future Forward Party, which gained the third largest number of votes and supports the pro-Thaksin coalition, has been charged with sedition for an offence allegedly committed four years ago, which could invalidate his election victory.

Then the King, in an act of extraordinary timing, stripped former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of his royal decorations because of a criminal conviction ten years ago, and the fact that he now lives abroad. This could deter smaller parties from supporting the coalition. Meanwhile the Election Commission announced it is looking into claims of electoral wrongdoing against 66 successful candidates, though it does not name those it is investigating or their parties.

Pheu Thai’s Ms Sudarat has accused the army of interference, saying, ‘Last time the military took power through a coup, this time they are trying to do it through manipulation.’

The respected Economist magazine, meanwhile, wrote after initial results came in that ‘the junta, it seems, cannot organise a rigged election in a dictatorship’.

Even before polling day, the neutrality of the Election Commission was called into question when it banned another Thaksin-supporting party, the Thai Raksa Chart, which had named as its prime ministerial candidate the King’s elder sister, only to have the nomination vetoed by the King.

While the position of the monarch is not in question in this strongly royalist nation, King Vajiralongkorn is presiding over his first election – and ultimately will be expected to endorse parliament’s choice of prime minister. The fact that his coronation is to take place before a new government is formed is a reminder that ultimate authority lies with the monarch rather than the military. Since Thailand became a constitutional democracy in the 1930s there have been 12 military coups d’état which deposed the government of the day, never the monarch.

The Election Commission now needs to affirm the results of the March 24 poll, possibly invalidating some and ordering re-polling, and to allocate the 150 party-list seats. Only then will parliament meet to choose a prime minister who, under the constitution, does not have to be an MP. (Mr Prayut did not stand for election to parliament.) It will then be up to the newly-crowned King to endorse the new government – and time for the military to return to their barracks.

Nicholas Nugent has followed elections and coups in Thailand over many years

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