Thai polls may not be as fixed as junta hopes
AFTER a series of broken promises by Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who also doubles as prime minister, to hold a general election as demanded by the Thai people and the international community, the die is finally cast. The election is scheduled to be held on February 24, 2019, or May 26 at the latest.
Although the junta-drafted constitution was promulgated in 2017, the gridlock on political activity has not been lifted. Major political parties are at a disadvantage, as opposed to juntanominated parties or groups, which are given the latitude of advance campaigning. Prayuth himself has embarked on a campaign spree under the guise of ‘roving Cabinet meetings’ in the countryside to shore up his political base, though he is still playing coy about announcing his candidacy to run for election to extend his tenure as prime minister.
As the deadline for the general election approaches, the junta had no choice but to relax its ban on political activity in September by permitting political parties to hold meetings, including electing party leaders and executive party members. However, the parties are still hamstrung by the junta’s directives that forbid other political activities such as campaigning.
For the past two decades, elections have been a contest between two major political parties – former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party and its reincarnations the People’s Power Party and Pheu Thai Party on the one side, and the Democrat Party on the other. Other medium-sized political parties such as Chat Thai Pattana, Phum Jai Thai and Chat Pattana were mere political opportunists waiting to jump on the political bandwagon to be a part of the government coalition, whichever side won.
The forthcoming 2019 election would have followed the same pattern had it not been for Prayuth, who publicly expressed his interest in politics, implying his desire for a second prime ministerial term. Prayuth’s recalcitrance to officially announce his candidacy has not prevented rogue politicians, political turncoats and opportunists from rallying behind him to form a political movement and political parties in anticipation of Prayuth’s eventual candidacy.
Altered political landscape Should Prayuth decide not to run for election, the junta-crafted constitution has a legal provision for him to be nominated as non-elected prime minister after the election, providing that his nominated political parties put on a decent showing at the polls.
A flurry of activity to form political parties to support Prayuth as post-election prime minister has altered the political landscape. The next election is no more a contest between Pheu Thai and the Democrats. It is no more a preference for one party’s economic and social policies over the other party’s. It is no more a contest between personalities. When the battle line is finally drawn, this election will be a choice between two political ideologies: democracy versus semiauthoritarianism.
The people who favour a universally-accepted democratic system will vote for the parties that articulate the values of democracy and reject any form of authoritarianism in their political platforms. The parties that unequivocally subscribe to such principles are, among others, Pheu Thai and the newly-formed Future Forward. The electorate – which favours narcissism, unelected deep-state operators and a semi-autocratic system dominated by a military-cum-bureaucratic oligarch – will vote for the junta-nominated parties, particularly Palang Pracharat and its allies.
This military party may also be supported by medium-sized parties such as Phum Jai Thai, which professes to be non-aligned and middle-ofthe-road. The Democrat Party is deeply split and its choice of leadership is up for grabs among Abhisit Vejjajiva, the incumbent leader and former prime minister, and two other veteran politicians. Depending on who the next leader is, the Democrat Party could well play a supporting role for the military party in order to get a slice of the pie should Prayuth return as prime minister.
Pheu Thai has not been totally dormant for the past four years since the military coup. The party has been undergoing a superficial reinvention to stay competitive in the political arena with a new vision and motto and an effort to inject new blood, in tune with the advent of new political parties like the youthful Future Forward.
Like the Democrat Party, Pheu Thai also has its share leadership problems. Since the departure of Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, both casualties of military coups, the party has been without a leader. Although a party leader and executive members are to be elected on October 28, there isn’t yet a clear choice of leader. Be that as it may, Sudarat Keyurapan, an influential veteran politician, stands out among the favourites to take over the helm.
New electoral formula The 2017 Constitution was specifically designed to prevent Pheu Thai from coming to power again. Its proportional electoral system is designed to diminish the party-list parliamentary seats of major political parties. Mathematically speaking, if Pheu Thai were to win the majority of seats, it would obtain only a few or no proportional seats in the parliament under the new electoral formula.
To get around this anomaly of the constitution, Pheu Thai has created several political parties to attract southern votes – namely Pheu Dharmma Party, Pheu Chart Party, and perhaps Prachachart Party headed by Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, founder of the Wahdah Group of Muslim politicians and a former Pheu Thai member. Each of these affiliated parties is not expected to win a majority of votes in electoral constituencies but would instead obtain a share of proportional votes.
In this way, the combined affiliated parties plus Pheu Thai would have a fair chance of winning the constituency seats as well as proportional seats in parliament. Furthermore, one of these affiliated parties would also be a substitute party for Pheu Thai in the event that the latter is dissolved.
Pheu Thai and other parties that advocate the building of a strong democracy in Thailand are working under adverse conditions engendered by a seriously flawed constitution that marginalises the sovereignty and power of the people.
The result of the election under a clearly undemocratic constitution will not truly reflect the will of the people but may instead perpetuate the continuance of the junta’s stranglehold on power. The junta is predisposed to maintaining power after the election, as evidenced by its laborious effort to lay the groundwork for this in the past four years.
Such apprehension gives rise to the notion of a “national reconciliation government” that could be put into place to oversee and ensure free and fair elections. But such a notion is only a whisper that could vanish in thin air.
The most agonising question is: Will the hope and aspirations of the Thai people also vanish into thin air in next year’s election?
– Asia Sentinel