Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha promised to hold a general election ‘no later’ than February 2019. According to Kevin Hewison the military junta has now manufactured an electoral system it believes cannot produce a dominant party and hopes a weak coalition government will prevail.
Thailand’s junta has talked about a ‘return to democracy’ since it seized power in May 2014. It has repeatedly delayed elections, although the junta now proclaims an election will be held in February 2019. Political parties are gradually being released from the manacles that have prevented them from meeting and being active since the coup, and new parties are being proclaimed. But few observers are convinced by the promise of elections in February.
These delays are one element of a set of processes devised by the junta to prevent the election to government of any party associated with exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. For the junta and its supporters, ‘reform’ means neutering the Shinawatra clan’s Pheu Thai Party. The junta’s determination to crush Pheu Thai and the related Red-Shirt movement draws lessons from the military’s failure to defeat its opponents following the 2006 coup.
According to the US ambassador at the time, not long after Mr Thaksin won a massive victory in the February 2005 election, something of a consensus emerged among military leaders, Privy Councillors and other members of Thailand’s elite that Mr Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party-led government had to go. Big Yellow-Shirt rallies led to the 2006 coup. TRT was subsequently dissolved and a swathe of corruption and other charges laid against Mr Thaksin, his family and TRT members.
The result was an ongoing and sometimes violent political struggle for control of Thailand’s politics that pitted Mr Thaksin and his supporters against his powerful opponents. Much to the surprise of the former prime minister’s rivals, a Thaksin-backed party won the 2007 election, despite electoral rule changes implemented by the military-appointed regime. Again, Yellow-Shirt demonstrations led to an intervention by the Constitutional Court in late 2008 that ousted the government. The pro-Thaksin government was replaced by a Democrat Party-led government, and the political contest continued.
Following Red-Shirt opposition, an election was permitted in 2011 and voters elected a pro-Thaksin party once again – Pheu Thai. Frustrated, Mr Thaksin’s opponents organised another movement – the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. It blocked and prevented the 2014 election, destabilised the elected Yingluck Shinawatra government and paved the way for the 2014 military coup. This coup was led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a resolute Thaksin opponent with strong palace links.
Gen Prayuth’s regime seized power determined to avoid the mistakes of 2006: the failure to neuter Mr Thaksin, his parties and his supporters.
Repression has been an important instrument. Immediately after the 2014 coup, the military showed that it had been assiduously acquiring intelligence on the vast Red-Shirt network by arresting and intimidating its leaders across the country. Several hundred Red-Shirts went into exile while local networks were penetrated and disrupted. The regime gave particular attention to anti-monarchists and lodged dozens of lese majeste charges. In one case, a Red Shirt leader was pursued internationally and ‘disappeared’.
At the same time, the regime prosecuted and incarcerated Pheu Thai leaders. Several party leaders remain in prison today, and the junta launched a blizzard of legal cases against the Shinawatra clan and its supporters. The highest-profile instance was the malfeasance case against former prime minister Yingluck that resulted in her joining her brother Mr Thaksin in exile.
Meanwhile, the junta plagiarised several Thaksin-era policies and launched concerted efforts to win the allegiance of those who voted for pro-Shinawatra parties. Like its Yellow-Shirted supporters, the junta believes that the provincial citizens who repeatedly voted these parties into government were duped or bought, or are simply ignorant. It assumes that these voters were insincere in their support for Thaksin parties and can be made ‘less stupid’ and weaned from Pheu Thai.
Independent surveying suggests most voters in the populous northeast still prefer Pheu Thai. But the junta has been more successful in attracting Pheu Thai factions away from the party. The regime and military intelligence is encouraging the establishment of small parties that, while nationally insignificant, may diminish Pheu Thai support in local constituencies.
In case its efforts to neuter Pheu Thai are unsuccessful, the junta has also sought to restructure the electoral system to prevent any elected government from actually governing. In essence, the junta has reset Thailand’s political clock to the 1980s and that era’s quasi-democracy. The 2017 Constitution, which was forced through a referendum that was neither fair nor free, was crafted by deeply conservative political survivors of that period. A confetti of laws and rules reserve real power for the military, the military-appointed Senate and various state and ‘independent’ agencies.
In the 1980s, palace favourite General Prem Tinsulanonda was ‘invited’ to be prime minister. He mostly ignored Parliament. It was an unimportant place where a multitude of small political parties bickered, leaving Gen Prem to rule with his preferred technocrats. Elections meant little as Gen Prem saw few challenges other than those from competing army factions. The locus of political power was in the bureaucracy and the military.
That’s what the junta wants for Thailand today. It has manufactured an electoral system it believes cannot produce a dominant party. It hopes a weak coalition government will prevail. If the pundits are reading Gen Prayuth correctly, he plans to have himself ‘invited’ to head the post-election government.
While there has been cheer about the formation of some new and progressive parties, dozens of other new parties are conservative and support the junta. All this activity is a measure of junta success. Small parties and a fragmented party system mean the military can maintain its political dominance in a Prem-style quasi-democracy that is better thought of as a stifling, semi-authoritarian political system.
Kevin Hewison is the Weldon E Thornton Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an adjunct professor at the University of Macau. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.