Thailand’s Election: Continuity or Change?

Thailand to hold polls on March 24, first general election since coup | Image: ABS-CBN News

About 51-52 million Thais will go to vote on March 24, the first election since the civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra was toppled by the military coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-Cha in 2014. This election will witness about 7 million Thais voting for the first time under the new constitution framed by the military in 2017.

For many observers, this election is a political tussle between the pro-democratic parties who want to build a genuine democracy and those who want to retain the rule of the junta. What remains to be seen is will the junta continue or will there be a new wave of democracy?

New Constitution: A Strategic Manoeuvre?

Critics are of the view that the 20th constitution of Thailand signed by King Vajirilongkorn in April 2017 gives more advantage to the ruling junta over other anti-junta parties. The new Constitution paved the way for the conduct of the Parliamentary elections while also introducing reforms in the election process. The Thai Parliament comprising a total of 750 seats has 500 members in the lower house (House of Representative) for a term of four years and 250 in the upper house (Senate) for a term of five years. The 250 seats of the Thai Senate is not directly elected by the general public. This implies that the 250 seats of the upper house, will be entirely appointed by the ruling junta or by those currently in power.

The current constitution mandates both the upper and the lower houses of parliament to vote for Prime Minister, and not just the lower house as commonly practised in the previous Thai general elections, as well as many parliamentary democracies. Constitutional rules dictate that the party or more likely, the combination of parties with a simple majority of seats (250) in the 500-member House of Representatives will form the government.

Prime ministerial aspirants will also need 250 votes in the lower house to gain the position.  If none of the candidates manage to garner 250 votes, both the lower house and the Senate will vote to select the prime minister. In the current scenario, the junta party candidate may just need to secure 126 votes to gain majority in the Parliament, that is, 50% of the total votes plus one (375 plus 1). For the other anti-junta party candidate, the votes needed to secure the majority is at least 376 votes, which looks challenging given the change in the constitution and reforms in the election process. This system under the new constitution has been criticised as being undemocratic favouring the junta rule again and thwarting the anti-junta parties.

The Usual Suspects

We have seen a proliferation of political parties for the 2019 general election though most of the parties are subsidiaries to the larger parties, especially anti-junta parties. However, as already mentioned, some of these prominent parties have been dissolved by the Election Commission. Among the most popular parties to watch for is the pro-junta proxy party of Prayut Chan-o-Cha, the Palang Pracharat Party (People’s State Power Party). The new constitution and the change in the election reform gives the PPP greater edge to retain power than any other anti-junta parties.

In closest opposition to the return of the Prayut government is the anti-Junta, pro-democracy party, Pheu Thai Party (PTP) of which former self-exiled Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra is most influential. To be noted here is that, PTP has successfully won all the general elections of 2005, 2001 and 2011. As Thaksin have strongholds among the rural Thais and the north-eastern population, the PTP may still come back with great victory in 2019 election too. Judarat Keyuraphan is a figure to watch for a Prime Ministerial candidate, with both Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra in self-exile.

The conservative Democratic Party, the oldest party in Thailand led by former Prime Minister, and Oxford educated Abhisit Vejjajiva has pledged not to support the return of Prayut in this election or support the Pheu Thai to whom Abhisit lost the previous election. With support from the capital and the Southern Thailand, the oldest party of Thailand may still surprise the voters.

A third-way party between the junta and pro-Thaksin party is the emergence of the latest progressive party called the Future forward Party (FFP) that assumed status on 28 September 2018. The party aims to inspire the Thai people that democracy is the right solution and that an alternative political model is possible. Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit has support from the urban and the young Thais. Roughly six million new voters might chose FFP. This may not be enough to put Thanathorn in the high seat, but it can still help form a pro-democratic coalition government.

While the pundits keep reiterating that Thaksin’s party has won every election since 2001 and hence continues to be a promising lead, it needs to be considered that this time around the junta has tweaked the game in its favour. The question now is will Thaksin’s party still be able to win these elections while the law tilts towards junta? To put it simply, this will not be a fair fight and yet, it stands to be seen whether democracy will win or will Thailand settle for the renewed status quo.

Legal Anarchy

Law in Thailand currently seems to favour the powerful. When the nation started with the election countdown, there were about 11,181 candidates, belonging to about 81 parties, contesting for 500 seats in the House of Representatives, apart from the 250 seats in the Senate. Currently this number has been slashed in half, due to multiple cases filed against most of the contesting parties. Not surprisingly, all of which are anti-junta in their ideologies.  First to hit the floor was Thai Raksa Chat Party which was recently dissolved on the grounds of being hostile against the monarchy. Dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chai Party in February by the Constitutional Court because the current king objected to Princess Ubolratana Mahidol contesting elections, exhibits the power yielded by the Monarchy despite Thailand calling itself a constitutional Monarchy.

What does this mean for the democratic landscape of the country?

Noting the ongoing trend, the present legal system is skewed in favour of the junta. Since the 2014 coup, laws of Thailand have continuously been regressive, repressive and against the very tenets of Human Rights. The general public is denied basic rights such as right to freedom of speech and expression, restriction on any association or gathering exceeding five members, especially that of political nature, a ban that has only been lifted as late as December, 2018, making it impossible for people to create a strong and steady opposition.

The junta frequently uses draconian laws such as the Computer Crimes Act and the principle of ‘lese majeste’ to indict political parties with pro-democratic bent. The Election commission, also accused of being biased towards junta seems to be strategically processing cases against the opposition parties. While cases against the proxy party of the current junta, Phalang Pracharat Party, are on hold due to “lack of evidence”, their chief opponent Thai Raksa Chat Party, directly aligned with Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party, was dissolved without following the due course of law, on the ground of hostile intentions.

The next in line for a potential dissolution maybe the liberal leader of Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroonguankit who has vowed to break the cycle of coups “suspending” democracies, and contain the military through making necessary changes in the Constitution. However, Thanathorn has been charged under the draconian Computer Crimes Act for spreading anti-junta sentiments through social media. Word is that the result of his indictment will only be disclosed two days post elections, which means if he is indicted his votes will be nullified.

The junta of Thailand, which for all intents and purposes, is an interim government, has failed to perform its key duty of restoring a democratic rule in the country. Experts are of the opinion that the junta is acting in direct violation Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is signatory.

Article 25 of ICCPR categorically mentions the involvement of citizens of the nation in choosing their representative through free and fair means. It also refers to a more liberal role of the press which should be able to freely voice thoughts and opinions of citizens on the government and its governance.

In a stark contrast to these provisions, the junta in Thailand has made it next to impossible for the general public to voice dissent. There are express gag orders on media and strong laws in place which prohibit any kind of criticism of the work of the ruling junta, claiming it seditious, or criminal disinformation threatening national security.

An election process where the victory of the ruling junta is already preordained, can hardly be fair or democratic.

India-Thailand: Same Boat?

As of today, Thailand and India seem to be sailing in the same boat. Both the countries fight for democracy in the coming elections. While the former fights to bring it, the latter fights to retain it. To the casual onlookers most of the political turmoil of both the nations will also look familiar. Save for the exception that India is world’s largest democracy, with far more complicated intricacies than most nations, including Thailand. The challenge for Indian voters is not the choice between monarchy or democracy, but between the kinds of democracies. India as of date is struggling to retain its identity as a sovereign nation, tolerant to all its varied cultures and traditions. At the same time it also has to ensure that the place it has created for itself on the world map is not compromised.

For Thailand a victory for the pro-democratic parties will spell a dawn of new era, while India stands in a place where victory can only be assessed based on how stable a government comes to power. A new regime, which will only be a coalition government, will lead to poor leadership and strong possibility of a total collapse long before the term expires. Continuing with status quo will lead to a possibility of domestic turmoil surrounding the alleged religious bias practiced by the ruling government.

In either countries, who will win the election may not be that much of a surprise, but the real cliff hanger is: will the elections change anything at all? Can the countries hope for a promising tomorrow? That remains to be seen as the year unfolds.  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

Ekta Rai & Dr Arenla Jamir

Ms Ekta Rai is a legal counsel based in New Delhi and Dr Arenla is an independent researcher based in New Delhi

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