Thai junta dreams of a ‘Thaksin-free’ election
Thailand's politics are percolating again with legal clearance for democracy-restoring polls in February 2019. But will they be free and fair?
Upon entering the Peua Thai party’s headquarters, reminders of its inspirational if not de facto leader Thaksin Shinawatra are all-around. To the left is a library dedicated to the self-exiled former premier; to the right a larger-than-life portrait of the then politician prostrated before recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Thailand’s ruling military junta overthrew a Peua Thai-led elected government in May 2014, in the name of restoring stability and cleaning up politics. The putsch arose from months of anti-government street protests sparked by a Peua Thai bid to pass through parliament an amnesty that may have allowed the criminally convicted Thaksin to return to the kingdom as a free man.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s coup-installed military government has endeavored since to uproot Thaksin’s and his younger sister ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s populist legacies – a raft of pro-poor policies and hand-outs that won Peua Thai and its predecessor parties popular support at previous polls – in the name of curbing corruption, restoring finances and political reform.
But as Prayut’s heavy-handed regime starts to ease strict restrictions on political activities in the run-up to new elections now vowed to be held in February 2019, the former army commander, despite his martial regime’s best blunt efforts, will be hard-pressed to erase Shinawatra family memories from voters’ minds.
Thailand’s long dormant democratic politics are percolating again as new parties rush to register for the highly anticipated polls. Coup-silenced politicians have also reemerged from the shadows of the military regime’s hard bans on political gatherings of more than five people and firmly enforced curbs on public criticism of its rule and policies.
The last legal hurdle to holding the polls was cleared on May 30 when the Constitutional Court ruled that an organic law on the election of parliamentarians was legal under the charter. The military regime has leveraged legal uncertainties, some cynically orchestrated, to delay previously promised polls but will be legally bound under its constitution to hold the polls by the first half of 2019, assuming the laws are royally endorsed in the next 90 days.
But as the junta loosens its grip, it’s also clear it intends to manage the elections on its own strict terms, including likely bans on acceptable and unacceptable political discourse on the campaign trail. Analysts believe the regime aims to stage the elections in the same repressed vein as the 2016 referendum on its retrograde constitution, whereby “vote no” campaigning was firmly disallowed.
The junta’s still-strong allergy to criticism was readily apparent on May 22 – the four-year anniversary of its coup – when it broke up and then detained the leaders of a group of a few hundred protestors that tried to march on Government House to call on Prayut to step down and hold polls within this year. Over a score of the protestors face possible sedition charges for their junta-defying vocal activism.
While the junta’s clampdown and detention of protest leaders was widely condemned, the regime no doubt feels it dodged a proverbial May Day bullet in the lackluster crowds that gathered for the anniversaries of both the military’s May 2010 lethal crackdown on Peua Thai-aligned ‘Red Shirt’ protestors and its May 2014 democracy-suspending coup. Some analysts had predicted if the protests ran amok the junta might suspend polls for reasons of national security.
This month, the junta will hold a meeting of registered political parties to set ground rules for election campaigning, including likely restrictions on criticizing the military regime’s personalities and track record. The rules will be part of the regime’s plan to prevent the polls from becoming a de facto referendum pitting Thaksin and Yingluck’s populist legacies versus Prayut’s personalistic strongman rule.
The regime has recently threatened to ban Peua Thai outright if Thaksin is found to have any financial or other influence over its members, policies or agenda. It upped the ante on that dissolution threat with sedition charges lodged late last month against eight Peua Thai executives for holding a press conference that criticized the junta’s “failures” after four years in power.
Pongthep Thepkanchana, a Peua Thai deputy prime minister in the previous coup-toppled government and Thaksin’s former personal spokesman, told Asia Times in an interview that his party would likely not attend the meeting nor abide by the junta’s stifling election ground rules, and would campaign openly on an anti-military, pro-democracy ticket.
Pongthep says “very few” Peua Thai politicians have ditched the party to join the military’s camp and that history shows past defectors usually lose at the next polls because Thais vote for the party rather than the individual. He also believes the junta’s attempts to take pages from Peua Thai’s political playbook have fallen flat.
“Of course [the junta] have tried to copy what we did in the past…but I don’t think it has really worked, maybe a bit, but not much,” said Pongthep referring to the junta’s rural uplift policies. “There is a saying: ‘If you stick to past success, it will lead to future failure.’ So [Prayut] did what we did in the past, but society and the world has changed.”
Prayut, who said in recent weeks he was now more a politician than soldier, clearly hopes to retain the premiership after the polls – a pathway that could emerge with an inconclusive election result. Reports suggest the junta is cultivating known machine politicians, some with unsavory reputations, while also trying to lure defections from Peua Thai to orchestrate such an outcome.
In the junta’s ideal scenario, no single party will win an outright majority – a near but not 100% certainty under election rules put in deliberate place to prevent a landslide Peua Thai victory – and with a deadlock the military’s appointed Senate lends its numbers to select Prayut atop a coalition of parties in a military-friendly “national unity” government.
Pongthep told Asia Times there is no scenario in which Peua Thai would join a military-cobbled, Prayut-led ruling coalition. Most analysts and observers believe Peua Thai will win more votes than any other party, outpacing its traditional rival Democrat party, if the polls are held even remotely free and fair.
While Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has suggested the Democrats would also shun such a coalition, Prayut snapped back that the party will eventually “crawl” to join him. A breakaway faction of the Democrats recently formed a party that is expected to appeal to military interests and could nominate Prayut as one of its three required prime ministerial candidates.
The junta knows, though, that scenario is no shoo-in. One source with access to high-level junta officials says that the military’s own internal forecasting, conducted by its all-seeing Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), has consistently shown Peua Thai will win resoundingly, even with Prayut’s more recent efforts to put a more human, pro-poor face on his militaristic regime.
Those consistent forecasts, the same source says, are one explanation for the junta’s long hesitance to hold new polls, which were first vowed to be staged in late 2016 but have since been repeatedly pushed back for myriad reasons. Last month’s upset poll result in Malaysia and subsequent fast probes into the predecessor regime may also have given junta leaders’ new cause for pause.
The junta is pre-empting the potential for post-election political revenge by ramping up legal and other threats against Thaksin, seen in recent resurrected lese majeste cases against him, as well as a money-laundering case dating to 2004 against his media owner son, Panthongtae, that threatens to make him the latest Shinawatra clan member to flee the country under legal duress.
The junta had earlier shied from routing Thaksin’s in-country interests. Some analysts view the revived charges as part of a complex negotiation that aims ultimately to make Thaksin and Peua Thai compliant with the regime’s election plan, while also mitigating the risk of a Thaksin-orchestrated popular blow-up if Peua Thai wins the polls overwhelmingly but is not allowed to form the government.
That may be wishful junta thinking. One source who recently met with Thaksin in Singapore said the ex-premier is bent on trouncing the junta and its proxies at the polls and that he still aims to return to Thailand under a new democratic order. Thaksin said that even with bans on Peua Thai using his personage to campaign, Thais will still understand that a vote for Peua Thai is a de facto vote for him.
With the junta still in firm control, it could yet find security-related or other cause to again push back the polls, though its room for maneuver has arguably never been more limited with rising democratic expectations. One government insider with access to the premier notes that unlike previously the Prime Minister’s Office’s bureaucracy is actually gearing up for the elections.
At the same time, the source says there are junta elements who are still reluctant to hold potentially destabilizing elections just as Thailand takes over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) rotating chairmanship in 2019, a statesman role Prayut would apparently relish both as a prestigious capstone of his tenure and as leverage vis-à-vis China as he repairs relations with the West.
Other election questions surround the kingdom’s still unfolding royal transition from deceased King Bhumibol to new King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. With no date set yet for the new king’s official coronation – a gala event expected to draw fellow monarchs and global dignitaries that will take months to organize and rehearse – it’s unclear if the royal household has any preference in staging the ceremony before or after elections.
Any new administration will have a key role to play in the transition, including budgeting for the construction of splendid new palace facilities and royal grounds over a sweeping area of Bangkok’s old town that now houses parliament, two universities, a zoo and horse track where for decades military generals have collected and punted on sometimes competitive, sometimes fixed, races.