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Thai Generals Get a Second Chance to Govern — in Mufti
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Thailand’s political transition after five years of military rule has few signposts suggesting a democratic spring is in the offing. That became clear when new members of the bicameral legislature met recently to ensure that Prayuth Chan-ocha, the incumbent prime minister and junta leader, would be guaranteed a second term. It was something akin to being anointed to head a new, quasi-civilian administration. He was so confident, he felt it beneath him even to show up at the meeting of both houses.

 

Prayuth won the crown with the votes of the entire 250 members of the upper house. All these senators, among whom were 104 military and police officers, had been handpicked by the junta to do Prayuth’s bidding. And on June 5, they continued as a rubber-stamp body in the tradition of the 250-member National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the previous body of lawmakers, which had 140 active and retired military officers. The NLA had also been chosen by the junta to fulfill its lawmaking needs. No wonder some officials within the country’s defense ministry once admitted to me, tongue-in-cheek, that the senate will be the “military party” in the legislature. It certainly had echoes of neighboring Myanmar, where the military retains its grip during the ongoing democratic transition there by having 25 percent of the seats in the parliament filled by unelected military lawmakers.

 

Prayuth’s second-term was also underwritten by the pro-junta coalition in the 500-member lower house, which had been elected on March 24 and has the authority to nominate the premier and form the government. He received 251 votes from this coalition, led by Palang Pracharath, the pro-junta party. But the final, combined tally favoring Prayuth was indicative of the political security he enjoys as he begins his second term: it was way above the target of 376 votes he needed from the sitting of both houses. This new rule was the final detail in a political blueprint that had been drafted by the junta’s allies to engineer an outcome that favored Prayuth and Palang Pracharath. After all, it was the first time that the senate was handed a role in choosing a prime minister. The odds were clearly against Thanathorn Juangroongruankit, leader of the new and upstart Future Forward Party (FFP), who was nominated to head the pro-democracy camp for the prime ministerial stakes. He ended up with 244 votes to Prayuth’s 500.

 

Few seasoned observers expected a different result. The scales had been tipped to favor Prayuth and his party through a host of fresh election-related laws and interventions by the nominally independent elections commission. The road to the first general elections since the May 2014 military coup, staged by the then army chief Prayuth to overthrow an elected government, was littered with signs that a fix was in. Legal scholars and political scientists concluded that the agenda of the junta and its backers among Thailand’s ultra-conservative and entrenched elite was to rewrite the election rules with one intent: bury their nemesis, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister and patron of the country’s most influential political clan.

 

It was a formidable straitjacket imposed on the voting public to avoid a repeat of the Thaksin juggernaut, which had won all previous elections since 2001 — even after a previous military coup in 2006, which overthrew the then Thaksin-led elected government. Consequently, more weight was given to small- and medium-sized parties to benefit at the polls than bigger ones, such as Pheu Thai, the latest avatar of a pro-Thaksin party, which had headed the government Prayuth overthrew. Constituencies were gerrymandered to favor Palang Pracharath and its allies over Pheu Thai. Campaign laws were toughened and censorship enforced. Legal cases were filed to intimidate candidates lining up behind a broad, pro-democracy front with Pheu Thai as the standard bearer. And finally, after the elections were held, the elections commission announced a new formula to grant one seat each to 11 small parties that failed to meet the minimum threshold. The intent was clear: bolster the pro-junta coalition in the lower house.

 

These measures brought to focus questions about the credibility of the election as an exit strategy for the junta. While the poll was relatively free and fair on election day, the verdicts about the process were anything but. Critics weighed in with telling commentary. The March polls were a “master class in how to steal an election at every level,” remarked Zachary Abuza, a US academic who specializes in Southeast Asian security affairs, in an article for The Diplomat. Others were as trenchant, such as Sunai Phasuk, the lead Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The March 24 general election was structurally rigged, enabling the military to extend its hold on power,” he wrote in the Thai press.

 

But Thai voters revealed other truths about the political sentiments in this semi-feudal country, which has seen 13 successful coups since the absolute monarchy ended in 1932. There is clearly a large following for the traditional, ultra-conservative values that have enabled military leaders to flourish. Voters demonstrated a willingness to back strongmen who are protectors of a social and political order that preserves the traditional hierarchy of privilege and the authority of the “good people.” Prayuth is the latest. He and Palang Pracharath have genuine reasons to celebrate after being endorsed by a constituency comfortable with generals who have little truck with democratic culture. By the end of polling day, Palang Pracharath had reaped 7.9 million votes, the highest for any party in the contest. It scooped up 116 seats in the 500-member lower house, making it the second largest party. That, by any yardstick, is an impressive debut for a newly formed party fielding candidates from a motley collection of political factions ranging from technocrats and provincial political cliques to former Thaksin cabinet ministers and a military wing.

 

Palang Pracharath also benefited from the senior citizens vote bank, with 10 million of the 50 million registered voters being over 61 years. Prayuth’s camp also made inroads into the traditional support base of the Democrat Party, the oldest in the country, which has been a pillar of ultra-royalist and well-heeled voters. The Democrats, contrary to their name, have served as a useful political arm of pro-military sentiment up to now. But when up against the genuine article, they were found wanting by the pro-military electorate, ending up with only 53 seats. Bangkok became a stark indicator of this shift in voter sentiment among the ultra-conservative camp, who ditched their customary support for the oldest party to embrace one of the newest on the campaign block. The Democrats were vanquished in the capital, not winning any seat out of the 30 up for grabs. In 2011, the last completed elections, they won 23 of the 33 seats contested.

 

Yet, even as they sulk at the junta’s achievement in an uneven political field, the pro-democracy camp can take comfort from some of the significant electoral spoils in their favor. There were rewards for pressing home such issues as the rise of inequality and the suppression of democracy under the junta. Pheu Thai’s record of pro-poor policies to boost the grassroots economy proved handy when the anti-junta camp made their case. They collectively exposed those who had economically benefited under the junta — a handful of Sino-Thai oligarchs. After all, the country had gone from being the sixth most unequal country in the world in 2014 to the most unequal country by 2018, according Credit Suisse’s annual study on global wealth distribution. Even well-connected Thais in the financial sector were admitting to this — the country had become an oligarchy. This fault line of inequality affirmed that the conditions that had deeply polarized Thailand before the 2014 coup — the urban vs rural divide; the affluent vs the economically marginalized; the views of rich Bangkokians who backed the putsch that the rural poor lack a “true understanding of democracy” — had only worsened.

 

As a result, the regime’s efforts to neutralize Thaksin’s sympathizers even after five years achieved limited results. Supporters in the northern and northeastern provinces, strongholds for the Shinawatra clan, stood with Pheu Thai in this election. Even in Bangkok, its base held its ground. And the final tally of 138 seats in the parliament ensured that Pheu Thai is still the largest party in the House. But it was a modest showing by previous standards. The same was the case for the votes Pheu Thai received, 7.4 million, a nearly 50 percent drop from the 15.7 million votes it received in the 2011 general elections.

 

This shift in voter sentiment was partly the result of Thaksin’s own doing. He took an unprecedented political gamble by having Thai Raksa Chart, a newly-formed pro-Thaksin party, nominate Princess Ubolratana, elder sister of the Thai monarch, as its prime ministerial candidate for the polls. It had the effect of a political earthquake. But to what end? If anything, it only revealed poor judgment on Thaksin’s part, or perhaps arrogance. His political bombshell barely lasted a few hours; the palace rebuked it; Ubolratana withdrew; and the new party he had backed was banned. It was another case of pride before a fall for Thaksin’s latest attempt to influence Thai politics from exile, where he lives as a fugitive from justice.

 

But the junta’s obsession with Thaksin distracted it on another front: the stealthy appeal of the Future Forward Party, launched by Thanathorn, a 40-year-old billionaire. On the morning after the elections, sources within Prayuth’s inner circle revealed that the regime’s teams in Government House, the Prime Minister’s office, were not celebrating Palang Pracharath’s performance as much as being in “shocked silence” at the sweeping gains made by the FFP. Even the country’s massive intelligence arm deployed to spy on the junta’s political enemies were caught by surprise. The FFP’s bagging of 81 seats, making them the third-largest party, exceeded by more than double the estimated 30 seats pre-election surveys by military intelligence reportedly predicted for FFP.

 

As worrying to the generals is the FFP’s brash, anti-military plank in its campaign manifesto and other slogans, which appealed to a majority of the 7.33 million voters aged 18 to 25, who account for 14.3 percent of the electorate. Among this constituency of first-time voters were many children of military officers and upper-middle class elites, according to junta insiders, suggesting a break between parents and children about political ideas. The success of the FFP through slick social media campaigns has made Thanathorn, heir to an auto parts maker, a symbol of a new divide in Thai politics: one across generations. Seasoned analysts reckon that the FFP’s politics of conviction makes him a different political challenge for the ultra-royalists than the one posed by Thaksin, whose record on democracy, human rights and corruption is far from stellar.

 

But little of that seems to matter to the junta’s backers. They are unable to stomach what this youth vote represents. They are clearly averse to what democracy offers: an inclusive diversity of views, political pluralism and space for differences. It is betrayed by their rush to turn their guns on Thanathorn through legal cases, because of the threat he represents to their order of privilege. And the rise of his youth vote, armed with the power of social media, even got under the skin of the hawkish military commander, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong. “Social media is more powerful than the armed forces,” he warned after the elections. It was a tacit admission that conventional tools of suppression are unable to silence a changing political landscape.

 

Yet, while Thanathorn’s entry was not factored into the junta’s calculations (hence the panic), its legal minds devised measures to ensure the legacy of military authoritarianism and its economic vision will prevail for years to come. The template for this mindset is the 20-year national strategy, flagged in the 2017 constitution drafted by the junta’s allies. It compels future governments to stick to the country’s policy vision, spelled out in the document, for the next two decades. There appears to be no room for swift, spontaneous innovation in this digital age. It essentially places policy-making by future non-military governments in shackles. Warnings abound for detractors, such as cabinet ministers who fail to comply: they can be impeached. As if that were not enough, the junta has even established a new layer of authority to act as the enforcer: a 35-member National Strategy Committee, dominated by the top brass of the defense establishment.

 

Some analysts suggest this nod towards heavily centralized, military-dominated, unelected centers of power in the post-junta polity invites comparisons with China’s Communist Party. It’s a new approach that tries to establish a “’Thai-style politburo’ by seeking to combine a Western, parliamentary-style polity with a Communist politburo system,” says Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence, a Bangkok-based think tank. Others see it as a tug towards the country’s past, where what passed for parliamentary democracy in the 1980s was window-dressing. By that reckoning, the country may have had elections since democracy took root in the early 1970s, but the actual shots were called by unelected generals pulling the strings from behind.

 

Little of this is surprising given the trajectory of Thai politics since 1997. A constitution drafted that year, dubbed the “people’s constitution,” emerged a few years after a bloody showdown on the streets of Bangkok against the attempt by a military strongman at the time to extend his stay in power after a parliamentary election. The 1997 charter placed much stock on governments acquiring legitimacy through elections. The case for political authority being decentralized for local bodies to share in this spirit was advanced as well. But two military coups later, those democratic aspirations are being reined in by the troika of ultra-conservatives from the military, the bureaucracy and the entrenched elite. They sit at the top of the social and political pyramid and draw their authority by claiming to be “good people.” It also implies legitimacy by being close to the monarchy, the repository of moral authority. Prayuth’s second term is an attempt to restore that old order through a strongman in mufti.

 

On the face of it, Prayuth stands to benefit from the political fortress that has been built to insulate him and his coalition. It appears to be the restoration of almost pre-modern, ultra-conservative values over the one shaped by modern, democratic aspirations. The tension between these two poles has shaped Thai politics over the past two decades.

 

But the unelected guardians will not be able to protect Prayuth all the time in the well of the parliament. There are already signs afoot that the slender majority his 19-party coalition enjoys is brittle. The Palang Pracharath coalition has also seen bold challenges that could unfold when the opposition benches use their electoral legitimacy to shred polices and laws Prayuth may table for a vote. And it will be a far cry from the obsequious years of the NLA, which considered 509 bills, of which 412 became law, often with near unanimous votes, during Prayuth’s first term as junta leader. He will also be deprived of the weapon he wielded to goad Thais across the spectrum: Section 44, dubbed the “dictator’s law,” for its sweeping autocratic power. After five years of being a law unto himself, Prayuth may be vulnerable for the first time. He will have to march to a different beat. And being on such unfamiliar ground may precipitate a moment of reckoning.

 

Yet, it is hard to guess from where that political current — or krasae, in Thai — will emerge. Sadly, the future of a free and open democracy for Thailand may have to wait until then. 

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    Thailand’s elections in March this year, after nearly five years of military rule since a coup in 2014 ousted the democratically elected government, hardly represented a return to democracy. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who staged that coup and later served as the junta’s prime minister, ensured that there was almost no chance that opponents of the military and its allies in the bureaucracy and among the country’s ultra-conservatives would lead the government after these latest elections. In that sense, they guaranteed an outcome in their favor. But the strong showing of anti-military forces ensures that Prayuth’s future ability to rule will be contested, writes Marwaan Macan-Markar.
    Published: Jun 25, 2019
    About the author

    Marwaan Macan-Markar is is a Bangkok-based journalist who specializes in Southeast and South Asia. He is a longtime observer of Thai politics.

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