Thai politics: More of the same old story?

Following months of speculations, Junta leader General Prayut Chan-o-chan confirmed in his weekly television programme, Returning Happiness to Thai People, that he would not prolong his stay in power and would end his tenure once new elections are held. General Prayut ascended to power last year following the ousting of the elected Pheu Thai government in a bloodless military coup. The coup was supposedly necessary to restore political stability and reform the country’s governing structure after months of political paralysis and street protests. One year on, the Junta is not far off from its stated intentions: the martial law was lifted earlier this year, work is underway to adopt a new constitution, and parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in 2016. Could this be the first glimpse of a return to democracy for Thailand?

As part of its efforts to reform the country’s governing structure, the junta – also known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – completed the first draft of the new constitution earlier this year. Since taking power a year ago, the NCPO had come under significant domestic and international pressure to hold elections, which it claimed could only occur under a new constitution. With the first draft completed, and the seven amendments (which includes a clause on holding a referendum over the constitution next year) to the documents recently approved by Thailand’s Parliament, the general election is now scheduled to take place in August 2016 under the premise that the constitution is approved first in the referendum. However, regardless of the referendum’s outcome next year, the political situation is unlikely to change significantly in the near future as Thai voters are presented with a Hobson’s choice of either accepting a less than democratic new constitution or rejecting it and prolonging the Junta’s grip on power.

The draft’s constitution has sparked strong criticisms from both main political parties which typically never seem to agree on any issue as they argue that the draft would greatly limit the powers of elected politicians and do little to end the political polarisation. Under the draft, future elections will be decided by a proportional representation voting system which would make it unlikely for any political party to win a parliamentary majority. Should no legislator earns enough support, the document would allow for an unelected prime minister to rule to avoid political paralysis. Less than a third of senators from a Government pre-selected pool of candidates will be elected directly down from half at present. The planned constitution will also entail the creation of numerous institutions to support politicians, including a “National Moral Assembly” which will punish those who act unethically, and will more likely contain any government critics. The Junta will retain control over the legislative agenda though a National Reform Steering Committee whose members will be drawn from the current bodies entrusted by the military to govern the country will prevent any future administration to deviate from a legislative programme currently being laid down by the junta.

In addition, some critics have argued that the charter aims at neutralising the influence of the Pheu Thai (red shirt) party which has won every election since 2001 with the support of a strong rural populace. Two months ago, the red shirt TV channel Peace TV had its license revoked on the ground that it incited violence and caused “divisions in the Kingdom”. More recently, former red shirt Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra appeared before court over her involvement in the controversial rice-subsidy scheme which led to losses estimated at more than 500 million bahts as the Government failed to resell most of the rice it purchased from farmers at an above market average price. If found guilty, she could be imprisoned for up to 10 years and asked to pay $18 billion in compensation for damages caused by the scheme. While there is no doubt that the rice scheme was poorly designed, unsustainable, and had disastrous consequences for the country’s economy, Ms Shinawatra and her supporters may not be wrong in affirming that such scrutiny and attacks placed on the Former Prime Minister are part of efforts from her enemies (royalist-military establishment) to handicap her powerful family.

Unlike the 2006 military coup, the NCPO is much more oppressive in nature. After seizing power, the junta introduced martial law and a nationwide curfew, banning political gatherings, arresting and detaining politicians and anti-coup activists, imposing internet censorship and taking control of the media. Hundreds of people, including activists, journalists and politicians have been arrested since the coup according to Human Rights Watch. In January 2015, the Junta forced a German foundation to cancel a forum on press freedom over the justification that Thailand was at a sensitive juncture.

Earlier this year, the junta lifted martial law but it was replaced with a degree that gives General Prayut unchecked power over all branches of government and grants him immunity from prosecution. Civil liberties are still heavily curbed in Thailand. On the first anniversary of the coup, 38 students were arrested in central Bangkok for taking part in symbolic protests and more recently, 14 students were charged with sedition for holding peaceful demonstrations against the country’s military government – if the military court finds them guilty, they could face up to seven years in prison.

However, the current political stability may be contingent on the promise that the economy does not deteriorate and lead to growing resentment from the most strongly affected by the poorly performing Thai economy – farmers which constitute 40% of the population and primary electorate of the Pheu Thai Party. Despite efforts from the junta to revive the economy through a series of stimulus measures, including new infrastructure development projects, results are yet to be felt by the people. The gross domestic product barely grew last quarter from the three previous months, demands are falling, exports declining and household debts are at an all-time high. Toyota, the Japanese car manufacturer with the largest market share in Thailand, reported falling sales of 17% in the period of January-March 2015 and traced back the problem with the decreasing purchasing power of farmers. It remains to be seen how long the Thai junta will sustain its legitimacy but until then, it will remain the same as it used to be – in between democracy and dictatorship.

Author Biography

Julie Yvin graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) with a Master’s degree in Public Management and Governance, and previously studied Social Science at a leading liberal arts college in Thailand. Prior coming to the UK, Julie has worked at UNICEF within the Child Protection division in Lao PDR, and has experience organising debate events and teaching. She now works in public policy in London.

*Cover image ‘ Thailand‘ by wongaboo

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