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CWA # 105, 31 March 2019

Southast Asia
Thailand: Between Elections and Instability

  Aparupa Bhattacherjee

The return of the General is likely for two reasons. General Chan-Ocha already has the support of the 250 members in the Senate; he only needs 126 more to become the Prime Minister again.

PhD Scholar, School of Conflict Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

The March 2019 general elections have created more confusions and questions about the stability of any future democratic process in Thailand. The initial announcement mentions Pheu Thai party winning 137 seats out of 350 seats, followed by the Junta backed Palang Pracha Rath Party (PPRP) that has won 97 seats. The latter, however, have polled more votes (7.9 million) than Pheu Thai (7.2 million). The confusion may be cleared with the final result announcement in May.

Has the election results met the expectations of the people? Or, has it paved way for further confusion and instability?

 

What was the Election all about?

The 2019 electoral process was all about change – in terms of new (and young voters), the formation of new political parties, and the political rise of anti-junta groups.

First, among the 50 million eligible voters, around seven million are in the age group of 18-26 who have voted for the first time. This segment cast their first vote and took part in the process. Political parties such as Democrat party and newly formed Future Forward Party (FFP) by a young billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, understanding this fact ensured their campaign attracted the young generation.

Second, the 2019 election witnessed the entry of anti-junta parties such as FFP and Seri Ruan Thai, adding a new dimension to the election. Until now, Thai elections witnessed primarily a two-party fight between the Democrats and its opposition Pheu Thai led by Thaksin Shinawatra.

Third, this election was also about change and governance. The military justified the 2014 coup in terms of corruption and instability. Although the military has comparatively done better to curb corruption, it could have also been because the military expenditure remained opaque and secret. The military government was also marked by a lack of freedom of expression, imposition of the draconian laws, political and economic instability. There was a popular expectation for better health care, education, economic development, environmental concerns, and media freedom. But most importantly, people expected that the elections would lead towards a stable Thai polity.

 

Does the mandate address the pre-election expectations?

If the change was the primary expectation from the March elections, unfortunately, the verdict is not clear. General Prayuth Chan-Ocha may even come back to power; is this what the people wanted?

The return of the General is likely for two reasons. First, in Thailand, a Prime Minister requires the support of both the Lower House (directly elected) and the Upper House (members are chosen by a committee) that consist of members from the military. Hence, General Chan-Ocha already has the support of the 250 members in the Senate; he only needs 126 more to become the Prime Minister again. Getting 126 votes will not be difficult for General given the votes by the army and pro-junta conservationist elitists. Compared to him, Pheu Thai needs a total of 370 seats in the house which is difficult given the lack of support in the Senate. This is the very reason that the newly formed seven-party coalition by Pheu Thai could only aim to win 255 seats out of 500 seats in Lower House but they can never elect a Prime Minister among their candidates.

Second, even if Pheu Thai formed a coalition and come to power, they can never govern independently. The new constitution framed by the Junta in 2017, has consolidated the military’s control over Thai politics. This new constitution would restrict Pheu Thai to work independently of the military. The new constitution also imposes a limit on the number of seats that a party can occupy in the lower house irrespective of the number votes they will win. Additionally, whoever comes to power is bound to follow the military’s 20 years plan for Thailand.

 

So what it means? Will Thailand see a stable polity?

It is most likely that PPRP is coming back to power. This means three things. First, Thailand could witness a political clash between the military and the supporters of Pheu Thai and other parties in the coalition, if the latter is not ready to accept. During the recent period, violent clashes between the aforementioned groups have not been uncommon in Thailand. In 2006, the Red Shirt movement the Shinawatra supporters clashed with the military resulting in loss of life and property. Therefore, most likely Thailand will be marred by political turmoil in the upcoming months.

Second, PPRP coming back to power will ensure that democracy will take a back seat in Thailand. There change in governance could be for worse for some sectors such as the economy, education, and freedom of Press and expression.

Third, the return of the PPRP would mean failure of the 2019 election which was all about a democratic change and bringing an end to the military rule. Although, it was assumed that Junta backed PPRP may come to power but the facts that there were new political parties with young leaders have installed some hope for change. But it seems change is still far away from Thailand whose political history has always been recorded to be unstable since 1932 (end of the monarchy) and it seems will continue to be the same in the future.

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