Six weeks after an inconclusive election in which competing pro- and anti-military sides claimed victory, Thailand’s new democratic direction is coming into view. Whether it’s a path to stable governance or a new era of political instability, however, is less clear.
Thailand’s Election Commission (EC) announced official results late Wednesday (May 8), bringing a measure of clarity to post-poll confusion over how it would finally allocate 150 party list seats to parliament’s 500-seat lower house, and hence which side has the electoral numbers to form a majority coalition government.
The final formula, endorsed in a May 8 Constitutional Court decision, has tipped the arithmetic balance towards Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s military-linked Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) and away from self-exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s Peua Thai Party and its upstart Future Forward Party (FFP) ally.
Reports estimate PPRP will coral as many as 20 parties into a coalition of 253 seats, just nipping Peua Thai’s seven-party anti-junta coalition of 245. (Two outlier seats will be determined by a rerun of a contest where a Peua Thai winner has been disqualified for fraud.)
Thailand is thus headed towards a new era of military-guided democracy, where a junta-appointed 250-member Senate will vote on the next premier and exercise extraordinary new powers to check and balance elected politicians.
Analysts already foresee in the numbers and tone an inherently unstable new democratic order, characterized by policy gridlock, high-volume political noise and non-stop politicized allegations and recriminations volleyed from both sides of the pro- and anti-military divide.
Peua Thai and Future Forward, both of which have griped about election rigging and post-poll jiggering, including the EC’s decision to allocate party list seats to a dozen small junta-leaning parties, will apparently honor the result and air their complaints and grievances in parliament rather than the streets.
While the Election Commission’s competence, messaging and management has been widely panned, including in social media campaigns calling for the commission’s head’s scalp and nullification of the result, few if any diplomatic observers believe that the election was systematically rigged in the PPRP’s favor.
That means that PPRP won the overall national vote, albeit under new election rules designed expressly to erode Peua Thai’s past dominance. Prayut’s pro-stability, conservative message thus resonated well beyond protest-wracked Bangkok, including in the country’s rice-growing central plains swing region.
He also no doubt won votes for his role in managing the kingdom’s delicate royal succession from deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej to new King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was formally coronated as the tenth king in the centuries-old Chakri dynasty earlier this month. Many analysts believe Prayut staged his 2014 coup in part to ensure stability during the transition.
While PPRP’s strong performance surprised many observers and pundits, so too did FFP’s. The party is led by 40-year-old billionaire entrepreneur and political novice Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and is already widely seen as a new force in the kingdom’s restored democratic politics.
“Thanathorn’s crowd believe they are on a historic mission, and they may very well be,” said one Bangkok-based diplomat. “The military fears him more than Thaksin because he’s unwilling to do the deals Thaksin would to protect his interests. They fear his ideology.”
Indeed, the upstart party’s anti-military message clearly resonated with progressive and new generation voters, placing FFP (80 seats) behind only Peua Thai (136) and PPRP (115), and well ahead of the more established Democrats (52) and Bhumjaithai (51), both of which are expected to join PPRP’s coalition.
It’s also put FFP at early loggerheads with a wider military-aligned conservative elite that is already angling to take down the party and its top leaders before its elected representatives are even seated in parliament. Some have gone as far as to question certain party leaders’ loyalty to the crown, an especially inflammatory charge in Thailand’s context.
Thanathorn now faces sedition and conflict of interest allegations, both viewed by his supporters as politically motivated, that if pursued and convicted would not only knock him from politics but also potentially land him in prison. He has professed his innocence and claimed that “dark influences” are conspiring against his party.
Either scenario could quickly spark new street protests led by a politically galvanized and well-organized youth movement that the military’s commander has already insinuated he would quickly put down. Some political observers are already speculating about the potential for “flash bloodshed” if Thanathorn is prosecuted or incarcerated.
For now, it’s still more likely that the opposed sides will fight their battles in parliament rather than the streets. Indeed, Peua Thai stalwarts are already speaking about launching a no-confidence debate later in the year that will aim to knock Prayut from power on the same type of corruption charges he used to justify his 2014 coup.
Analysts believe Prayut’s big umbrella coalition will inevitably be prone to leakage as he endeavors to satisfy the asks and demands of 20 or more parties. The Democrats are reportedly lobbying for six Cabinet positions, including agriculture and a major economic portfolio, to join.
Bhumjaithai, led by Anutin Charnvirakul, of the Sino-Thai Engineering construction company, is expected to receive the Transport Ministry at a time of massive infrastructure building, including major rail lines in the junta’s US$44 billion Eastern Economic Corridor mega-project, for his party’s participation.
Share prices of his related construction companies have climbed since it became apparent that he would decline Peua Thai’s offer of the premiership to join its coalition and would opt instead for PPRP. In recent private meetings, Anutin has taken a sharp critical stance against FFP, in a show of PPRP solidarity.
Stability moving forward will rest largely on Prayut’s ability to navigate new democratic dynamics. His patience and mettle will be tested early and often without the autocratic powers he wielded as a junta leader, including the Article 44 provision he frequently used to suppress dissent and push unchallenged policies.
It’s not immediately clear to observers that the ex-army commander has the gumption for intra-coalition horse-trading or the temperament to diplomatically absorb the scrutiny and criticism Peua Thai, FFP and other allied parties promise to pile on him as an elected rather than coup-installed leader.
Prayut is now widely expected to resume the premiership on a pro-stability campaign pledge, a vow he will likely find difficult to uphold presiding over a wobbly 20-party coalition and amid a daggers-drawn opposition bent on political revenge.
Even before the career soldier is installed into democratic power, as widely expected, Bangkok-based diplomats and analysts are already speculating about how soon his razor thin majority government may fall, and whether he will even be eligible or willing to run in new elections some reckon could be held as early as 2020.