Thailand’s first elections since military coup loosen junta’s grip on power

Despite a rigged constitution, the results have left the junta vulnerable to parliamentary gridlock.

Ken Lohatepanont
Ken Lohatepanont
12 June 2019, 4.46pm
Junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha secured a new term as Prime Minister after a parliamentary vote last week.

Last week, the leader of Thailand’s military junta, Prayut Chan-o-cha, easily won a parliamentary vote against his pro-democracy rival Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to secure another term as prime minister.

At first glance, it seems like a resounding victory for Prayut, a former army chief who has held the post since the 2014 military coup: Prayut won with 500 votes to Thanathorn’s 244. But it would be misleading to interpret the results as a sign of his widespread public support and a turn towards the restoration of democracy.

A quirk of Thailand’s 2017 constitution permits the senate, a body solely appointed by the ruling junta, to join with the elected lower house to choose the prime minister. The appointed senators include numerous active and retired members of the armed forces. It was unsurprising that all 250 members of this upper house voted for Prayut, despite speculation that some might choose to break ranks.

Constitutional creativity also swayed the lower house towards Prayut. His proxy party, Palang Pracharath (PPRP), had topped the popular vote, but a clear majority of the electorate voted for parties that were explicitly opposed to Prayut’s return to the premiership. Initially, the opposition seemed able to put together a coalition that would gain a majority in the lower house. But a post-election decision by the electoral commission led to one anti-junta party losing multiple seats and those seats instead being granted to a number of tiny parties that subsequently announced they would support Prayut.

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Given that the anti-junta coalition was doomed from the start due to the appointed senate, wavering third parties with unclear stances eventually decided to join the pro-junta coalition. Despite the fact that their leader, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, had pledged not to support Prayut’s return to the premiership, the Democrat Party decided to join hands with PPRP after Abhisit resigned due to disappointing election results. The Bhumjaithai party, another medium-sized party, followed the Democrats’ lead, cementing a majority in both houses of parliament for Prayut.

It is clear from these events that Prayut has taken advantage of the new rules to remain in power; as a PPRP lawmaker remarked, “the constitution has been drafted to benefit us”. It will continue to benefit the Prayut administration in power: even if he is toppled in a no-confidence vote, a pro-government MP has said that the senate can simply vote him back in through a joint sitting of parliament.

Cautious optimism

And so what is the future of Thailand’s democracy? Although this is not immediately clear, there are reasons for cautious optimism.

Firstly, Prayut’s new government is likely to quickly expose the failings of the 2017 constitution. The charter’s electoral system was intentionally designed to produce a parliament with many small parties. As a result, Prayut’s coalition government will contain an unprecedented 18 parties, many of which have a single MP. Satisfying the needs of such a diverse coalition that have little underlying loyalty to the prime minister will be difficult.

Even though the premier remains the same, the nature of his power has fundamentally changed. During his rule as coup leader, the interim constitution’s Section 44 granted Prayut absolute powers; it deemed any order issued using the powers under this section as “lawful, constitutional, and final”. Gone now are these powers. Also gone is the rubber-stamp legislative chamber that the junta had appointed. Instead, the notoriously hot-headed Prayut will have to deal with other veto points within the political system, most importantly a wafer-thin parliamentary majority in the lower house, through which Prayut must pass legislation.

Gridlock and instability will likely hinder Prayut’s ability to govern, leading the way to a dissolution of the house and increasing pressure on the government to amend the constitution, so that a more democratic political system can be put in place. In fact, the Democrat Party had made constitutional amendment a condition to join the PPRP-led coalition. Chuan Leekpai, a former Democrat prime minister who was recently elected as speaker of the House of Representatives, could play a key role in facilitating this process.

Thailand’s democracy, as weakened as it is, is still fundamentally different from Myanmar or Cambodia.

Secondly, a stronger opposition will now be able to hold the government accountable for the first time since the coup. Thailand’s democracy, as weakened as it is, is still fundamentally different from Myanmar or Cambodia in that a strong and vibrant civil society exists, along with capable opposition parties. Fiery political debate is very much in the Thai political and parliamentary tradition.

An example of this was clear when the house speaker permitted MPs and senators to scrutinize the qualifications of prime ministerial candidates before putting them to a vote. This allowed parliament to question Prayut’s record and character in a way that the junta’s rubber-stamp National Legislative Assembly had never done.

Thirdly, the 2019 election triggered high levels of engagement with politics among the Thai citizenry. The Future Forward Party, a new party that is unabashedly progressive in its outlook, has attracted a large following from social media-savvy younger voters disillusioned with traditional Thai politics. Even as the party and its leader, Thanathorn, continue to face legal challenges, such as the debate over whether or not Thanathorn is eligible to be a member of parliament, the political engagement that the party has heightened is unlikely to dissipate. Even more conservative parties have seen increased social media engagement. Many Democrat Party voters, surprised by the heavy losses that the Democrats received in the election, added a blue heart to their profiles on Twitter and tweeted the hashtag #1in3.9million in a sign of support.

Supporters of Thailand's pro-democracy Future Forward Party at a rally before the 2019 elections.
Supporters of Thailand's pro-democracy Future Forward Party at a rally before the 2019 elections.

Evidence of this engagement could be seen on the day of the prime ministerial vote. Hashtags related to the vote became worldwide trends on Twitter due to the volume of tweets from Thai users. Many admitted online that they were watching parliamentary sessions live for the first time, despite a previous lack of interest. It is probable that given the substantial interest in politics, a large number will undoubtedly continue observing Thai political events even as the electoral season is firmly behind us. Political engagement is fundamental to the strengthening of democracy and civil society, and this is a positive sign.

The outlook for Thailand’s democracy is, of course, still murky. The military junta’s heavy handed transformation into an outwardly democratically elected government has no doubt displeased the millions of Thai voters who voted for an end to the current regime. However, this suppression of the people’s voice is also unsustainable, and Prayut’s government is unlikely to be stable. Liberal democracy may not be so far out of reach in Thailand after all.

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