Hope, Fear and the Unknown in Thailand’s Upcoming Elections
This March, Thailand is scheduled to have their first elections since the military coup of 2014. As the election date approaches, there is hesitation on the legitimacy of the voting process that will occur in the coming weeks. Thailand has experienced multiple coups, this one being the twelfth successful instance since 1932. The most notable ones occured in 1991, 2006, and with the most recent coup occuring in 2014. Since the 2014 military coup, norms and expected behaviors have not followed the previous pattern of the other military takeovers. The typical script being: coup takes over power, control over broadcasting and media entities, a parade of military power, and then the drafting of a new constitution with promises of elections within a year. However, the transitional government established after the 2014 coup was unprepared, taking five years before scheduled elections - which are officially scheduled for Sunday, March 24, 2019.
The history of Thailand’s government and civil society is one still trying to figure itself out – constantly tilting from dictatorial conservatism and democratic rule. Thailand has brought forth the vibrant democratic values seen in the 1997 Constitution. However much civil progress has receded in the past 20 years with Thailand now shifting more towards authoritarianism.
A key player in Thai politics is Thaksin Shinawatra, the influential leader of the Pheu Thai Party and former prime minister. Thaksin was elected as prime minister in 2001 and represented an unprecedented victory in elections. Thaksin came into power by optimizing elector support, a seeming obvious in politics, however a tool that went unused and propelled him to the highest office. After the victory in 2001, the Pheu Thai party has won the past five elections only to be forcibly removed by courts or Thai military in 2006 and 2014. The Pheu Thai Party is known for authoritarian practices, dismissal of checks and balances, and human rights violations. The 2006 coup, also known as the ‘good coup’ was an attempt to re-democratize Thailand, however, the 2011 election of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra brought back the authoritarian practices that lead to the 2014 coup. Both Thaksin and Yingluck are in self-imposed exile, however, Thaksin’s influence in Thai politics is still seen today. The newest Constitution, a product of the 2014 coup, has attempted to remove the influence of elected officials and place more power into the hands of the military.
It is important mentioning that other motivations for this upcoming election might have, in part, to do with Thailand hosting the 2019 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit this June. Placing Thailand on an international stage will invite international attention and scrutiny if these upcoming elections go poorly.
The Political Parties and Presidential Candidates:
The belief that this election will be any different from the past is hopeful yet hesitant. The political map of Thailand is currently being contested by three key parties as the elections will be held on March 24th. The suffrage age is 18 in Thailand and it is a compulsory system.
Palang Pracharat Party is the current political party in power, led by current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and backed by the military. This party was established in 2018. Along with Mr. Prayuth, deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak and party leader Uttama Savanayana will have their names on the ballot in the general election. Leaders of this party lead the 2014 coup and have been pushing the election date farther back in order to ensure fair elections as well as for their own benefit as they gain political support.
Pheu Thai Party’s The political ties to the controversial former of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is both damaging and attracting depending on the point of view. The party, however, picked Viroj Pao-in as the representative for the general election.
Thai Raksa Chart party has connections to the Pheu Thai party as well as to former exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Raksa party is preparing to nominate Princess Ubolratana, the older sister of King Vajiralongkorn. She was stripped of her royal title when she married an American, so notions against speaking ill of Thai royalty/sacred monarchy no longer apply to the princess. King Vajiralongkorn decreed that her bid was ‘inappropriate.’ The combination of her royal past and her connection to Thaksin made her an unpredictable candidate both in intention and popularity in turning the election in her favor. Ubolratana was disqualified from the elections by the election commission and the Thai Raksa Chart party is now in process of termination via the election commission requesting the constitutional court to officially dissolve the party. The Court is expected to rule against Thai Raksa Chart.
Democrat Party is currently being lead by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who served from 2008 to 2011. Unique to Vejjajiva was that he was born in the United Kingdom and Western educated. He is known for being outspoken on corruption and authoritarian rule. It is believed that the Democrat party is the least popular among the key players and compromised/concessions would have to be made in order for the party to rise to power.
Assuming, free and fair elections, it is hard to say who will win the majority in the elections. With the current actions of the Thai government, even the legitimacy of elections is in question. The incumbent power and revised constitution give the military or Palang Pracharat Party more of an advantage, especially if the Thai Raksa party is officially dissolved and ineligible to enter new candidates in the election. The nomination of Princess Ubolratana of the Thai Raksa party and her connection with Thaksin and Pheu Thai party made her an unpredictable candidate and inherent threat to the Palang Pracharat Party. With Ubolratana now not a contending candidate, the influence of the military in current government and media outlets, the likelihood of current prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha of the Palang Pracharat Party to remain in power is shaping up to be the result. Which begs the question - is this democracy?
The Thai people have experienced constant frustration in the lack of true representation as well as corruption within Thai politics. Elections are not going smoothly. Since the beginning of 2019, protests have sprung up in an attempt to raise awareness on constant delaying of elections; Thai military has suspended a TV station critical of the military and the expected dissolution of a major contending political party. Free and fair elections are critical in developing a true democracy. At the core of this is the dismissal and denial of civil rights given to the Thai people under a ‘democratic rule’. In a Democracy, the citizens are the most important political actors in the state. In Thailand, citizens are becoming increasingly irrelevant and disregarded as political actors. As these power politics play out, hope, fear and the unknown remain as Thailand heads to the polls.