Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has laid the groundwork to entrench the military in power, analysts told BenarNews, as 2018 draws to a close and Thailand prepares for a general election next year – the first since he led an army coup that toppled a civilian government in 2014.
In 2018, after multiple earlier postponements and repeated promises of steering the country back on a democratic path and returning government to civilian rule, the retired general who heads the junta set into motion the final steps for holding national polls between February and May 2019.
But observers likened the past year’s moves to the military stage-managing the country’s first general election since 2011, when Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to power.
“This election doesn’t mean a return to democracy, but a return to the same old power structure in the name of democracy,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, 611 km (381 miles) northeast of Bangkok.
“It isn’t a real democracy, but just a move by the junta to legitimize its retention of power,” he told BenarNews.
Titipol echoed criticism espoused by opposition figures, academicians and others, who have accused the junta under Prayuth of taking calculated steps to fortify its power base, ensuring the military’s influence over politics even after the 2019 election.
“We can say that the election will not be fair and square,” Titipol said. “To have a fair and square election, there must be transparency and an equal chance for politicians and parties to speak freely. At the moment, we don’t have full freedom of expression.”
Titipol was referring to an array of laws aimed at gagging dissent that were been passed by the junta-backed parliament, in a country that already had Lese-Majeste, a strict anti-royal defamation law that forbids insults to members of the Thai monarchy.
PM: Constitution ‘legitimate’
Prayuth, 64, oversaw the passing of a new constitution just two years after he launched a putsch following months of protests against Yingluck. She is now in self-imposed exile with her older brother Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who served as prime minister from 2001 until he was also overthrown on Sept. 19, 2006.
The new army-drafted constitution essentially installed the military as a permanent powerbroker, analysts said, because the charter allows for an unelected prime minister and a 250-member Senate entirely appointed by the military.
During an interview with Time magazine in June this year, Prayuth defended the constitution, saying it was passed through an August 2016 referendum supported by 60 percent of more than 16 million voters.
“I believe this constitution is legitimate as it has been approved by the public,” Prayuth said. “It has all necessary mechanisms.”
Prayuth told Time that seizing power was “the most difficult decision I ever made in my life,” but he has also kept a long silence on whether he will try to prolong his public life.
In September, local newspapers quoted Prayuth as telling reporters: “I can say right now that I’m interested in politics.”
In early December, the prime minister lifted a four-year ban on political activities ahead of next year’s polls.
Prayuth, in a Royal Gazette statement, said he had determined that now was the time to lift political restrictions because a royal decree on the general election was approaching.
“It is apparent that there will be an election in the near future, which is a crucial transition for the country’s future, therefore, people should take part in choosing political parties to govern the country freely,” he said.
After he toppled Yingluck’s government amid street demonstrations that claimed at least 28 lives and injured 700 others, Prayuth installed himself as prime minister and head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the official name of the junta.
Under Prayuth’s leadership, the junta filed charges against Yingluck, who fled Thailand in August 2017 before she was to appear in court to hear the verdict over charges of gross negligence in a failed rice subsidy scheme during her tenure.
Both Yingluck and Thaksin claim that the charges against them were politically motivated. They were photographed on Tuesday outside a noodle house in Singapore.
‘Process is already transparent’
Analysts also foresee that next year’s polls will be tainted with questions about fairness and transparency.
On Wednesday, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai clarified his controversial statement over allowing international observers at the upcoming election, explaining that having foreigners monitoring the election would only show that Thailand had internal problems.
“I don’t mean we should reject international observers,” he said. “But we are experienced enough and the process is already transparent.”
Since it took power, the junta has issued and enforced decrees, prohibited parties from conducting political activities and barred more than five people from gathering in public. Then it repeatedly delayed the election on the grounds of constitutional and legislative steps necessary to take place before a balloting.
The NCPO has prosecuted about 100 people since taking power on charges of violating Lese-Majeste, under which offenders can be sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison, according to rights groups. The law, which has been in place since 1908, has been increasingly enforced since Prayuth took power.
Earlier this year, police charged seven pro-democracy activists with sedition and defying a ban on public gatherings for leading a January demonstration that drew about 100 people in downtown Bangkok.
Anusorn Unno, dean of sociology and anthropology at Thammasat University in Bangkok, told BenarNews that the upcoming election was planned “to let some parties take an advantage.”
“It is highly likely that the junta will hold on to power and will not enter politics outright because of the high risk,” Anusorn said. “So they ‘play the chase’ to find all the ways to win the election.”
Views from the people
But Puripong Suthisopapan, a 33-year-old businessman, expressed skepticism by telling BenarNews that he expected Prayuth to enter politics “one way or the other.”
“I believe the election will be most unfair,” Puripong said, citing reports of cash handouts ahead of the election.
“I believe he wants to retain the power through election for his own benefits,” he said, referring to Prayuth.
Three months ago, several members of the junta created the Phalang Pracharat Party, which would field candidates in the parliamentary polls. Analysts said it could provide Prayuth a vehicle for his political ambitions.
By running a pro-military party in the general election and wooing other parties in the race for the parliament’s lower house, the junta could further dominate politics in Thailand even after the election, analysts said.
Despite comments from academicians and analysts questioning the fairness of next year’s balloting, there are still many Thais who believe Prayuth will not manipulate electoral results.
One of them is Kitti Tantivejjanond, 65, a retired businessman who lives in Bangkok
“Prayuth respects the election result and I’m confident he will transfer power to the new government,” Kitti told BenarNews.