By Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Thais are scheduled to vote next month in a long-promised return to democracy after five years of military rule, amid concerns that legal changes put in place by the junta have prevented a truly free election.
Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and former Royal Thai Army chief who led the May 2014 overthrow of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, has repeatedly promised to steer the country back on a democratic path, but critics say he has taken calculated steps to stage-manage the balloting scheduled for March 24.
“Even if polls go forward, this will not in any way be a free and fair election,” political analyst Zachary Abuza wrote in a recent column for BenarNews.
“This is as rigged as it gets.”
Some 14,000 candidates will be running for election next month. Seventy-one candidates have been nominated, but analysts believe only four stand out among the pack: Prayuth of the Phalang Pracharat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party, Sudarat Keyuraphan of Pheu Thai Party and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of Future Forward Party.
But the real question is whether the opposition parties – those linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile with his sister Yingluck – can gather enough support to form a government, according to analysts.
“I see Phalang Pracharat winning a majority of seats, along with the Democrat Party and Pheu Thai Party, and it has a tendency to be able form a government because Prayuth is well accepted to a certain degree and the Constitution plays in his favor,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University.
“And I think the Phalang Pracharat Party could find allies to form a coalition. The military, the junta or the party itself can help cut a deal with others,” Titipol told BenarNews.
Parties linked to Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon who served as prime minister from 2001 until he was overthrown in a coup in September 2006, have dominated the nation’s political landscape for almost two decades.
Thaksin’s allies are seeking to rally poorer voters who have helped his supporters win every election since 2001, drawn by policies such as cheap health care.
But with the elections merely a month away, their campaign strategies might change, analysts said. Thai Raksa Chart is among those Thaksin-linked parties.
On Feb. 27, the Constitutional Court will meet to decide whether it should disband the Thai Raksa Chart, after its unprecedented move on Feb. 8 naming Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi as its sole choice for the nation’s top political leadership.
Princess Ubolratana’s younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, immediately issued an edict condemning her candidacy as “extremely inappropriate,” but Thai Raksa Chart leader Preechapol Pongpanit said he had good intentions in nominating the princess.
“We don’t know whether we’ll be able to make it to the polls or not,” Umesh Pandey, a Thai Raksa Chart member, told reporters. “We are fighting against a regime that seized power five years ago. They have total control of how things are run.”
Also on Wednesday, Thanatorn, the leader of the Future Forward Party, is scheduled to meet the attorney-general about computer crime charges filed by police against him in September last year.
The charges, which could result in a five-year jail sentence and fines, stemmed from Facebook posts in which he allegedly accused the junta of “buying off” members of parliament from other parties.
The attorney-general’s office has yet to decide if it would seek an indictment, potentially derailing Thanatorn’s election bid, a lawyer said.
Voters still undecided
Under a new military-drafted Constitution, the prime minister will be chosen by a simple majority of the legislature, which is divided into two houses – the Senate, which has 250 seats, and the House of Representatives, or the lower house, which has 500 seats.
In previous general elections, the party with 251 seats in the lower house appointed the prime minister. But for the first time, the new constitution requires both houses to choose the prime minister. Now, 376 votes are needed.
Two-hundred Senate seats have already been appointed by the junta. They are not up for a vote. The remaining 50 are being chosen among representatives of 10 occupation groups.
Analysts said that with the junta appointments, it would appear that Phalang Pracharat, Prayuth’s new party, and its allies could pick the next prime minister by merely winning 126 seats in the lower house.
The new Constitution allocated 150 “party-list seats” on the basis of their share of the overall vote, making it highly unlikely any party will get to name the next premier outright. Alliances will be needed, analysts said.
“This is why the Senate is so important: under the new Constitution, both houses elect the prime minister, rather than just the lower house. Thus a party needs 376 votes (alone or with coalition partners) to form a government. With the Junta controlling most of the 250 Senate seats, that is a very tall order,” Abuza said.
More than 51 million Thais are eligible to vote, but a few voters told BenarNews they hadn’t made a decision about which party to support.
“I don’t like the policy of any party, the same old thing that is impractical,” said Apiwat Chobthamdee, a 35-year-old businessman from Ayudhya province. “I keep wondering whether the new government could solve any problems at all.”
Apinan Thammavongsa, a 37-year-old school teacher in Sakon Nakohn province, said he would expect a decentralized government, with power reaching rural areas, after the elections.
“I will vote to show participation in democracy. I will elect the party that distributes income and empowers local administrations,” Apinan said. “But I doubt if the new government could achieve that.”
Analysts, meanwhile, say they expect that the military would extend its hold on power through the balloting.
“Whatever happens after the voting in March – whether civilian parties win, or military forces do, or some combination of both form a government together – the election will not bring democracy back to Thailand,” Eugénie Mérieau, a former consultant for the Thai program of the International Commission of Jurists, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.
Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said no matter who wins, “Thailand will likely remain in political crisis.”
If the opposition Pheu Thai party and its allies gain control of the lower house of parliament, the military and its allies will likely respond harshly, including using the courts to weaken the coalition, Kurlantzick said.
Or the military could maneuver after the election to get many small parties to back the army’s favored parties that are unlikely to win a majority in the lower house, he said.
“In this scenario, Thailand would have essentially a democratic facade, behind which the military and the king remain the true powers,” Kurlantzick said.