Thai polls may not be as fixed as junta hopes

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - World - OC­TO­BER 19, 2018 PITHAYA POOKAMAN

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

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