Make no mistake about it, Thailand has now firmly returned to noisy, raucous and hotly contested democracy after five years of coup-installed and heavy-handed military rule.
Politics are again being fought out in an elected parliament, not commanded as military decrees or battled in the streets. Political scores are being aired and contested in the open, not through late-night police state knocks on the door or military-enforced “attitude adjustment” sessions.
Yes, the military is still lingering in the political wings and, yes, its ex-members are still in top government positions, with coup-maker Prayut Chan-ocha retaining the premiership. And, yes, the “democratic” opposition is rightly carping of foul play at the March 24 elections, in the vote-counting and post-election coalition building.
Significantly, though, the coup-ousted Peua Thai party agreed to play by the junta’s tilted election rules and has abided by the result, filling its role in the parliamentary opposition despite winning the most seats at the March polls.
The surprise rise of Future Forward, an upstart anti-military party that has the kingdom’s conservative elite in conniptions, was proof positive that the election had a large measure of democratic legitimacy, an assessment shared by many Western embassies and international agencies.
Even more significantly, Thailand’s newly crowned king is asserting his royal prerogatives in ways seldom seen under his father’s long reign, a re-centralization of monarchical power some feel is gravitating towards more overtly palace-guided or influenced politics.
But while Thailand’s new elected government may look wobbly on the outside, with some predicting it won’t last a calendar year, it is actually undergirded by strong pillars of support – arguably the pillars that matter most, namely big business, a conservative elite which entrenched its power during five years of military rule, and the monarchy.
This is the government that those power centers wanted and got, and as such will be harder to knock from power than it may appear, particularly now that Prayut has democratic legitimacy given his Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) won the most votes (8.4 million to Peua Thai’s 7.9 million) at the polls.
Thailand is thus set for more rambunctious, less assertive and slower moving government, seen at the outset in the long-winding debate on whether Prayut actually fully recited his oath of office at an audience with King Maha Vajiralongorn, as legally required.
The Constitutional Court has declined to rule on the kerfuffle, though it was significant at the uproar’s height that Vajiralongkorn issued a note of support to Prayut, effectively defusing the opposition’s bid to play a royal card to challenge his government’s legitimacy.
There are no doubt plenty more political landmines ahead, as always in Thai politics, but for the sake of short and mid-term stability Prayut’s government is likely more stable than many analysts recognize.
His 18-party coalition’s razor-slim and recently narrowed majority suggests it could be toppled at the first chance the opposition gets to stage a no-confidence debate, expected in early 2020. Indeed, Peua Thai and Future Forward have made it crystal clear that that is their strategy.
Yet sources close to both PPRP and Peua Thai acknowledge the ruling coalition’s back-room operators are negotiating to lure, or buy, 15 or so MPs to its side when the no-confidence debate is finally called, likely giving Prayut the numbers to see down the challenge and firm up his position.
No-confidence debates can only be held once a year, so a first failed attempt would conceivably buy Prayut at least another year in office.
One question is how soon does Peua Thai really want another costly election, particularly at a time when the party, despite winning the most seats at the March 24 polls, looks increasingly rudderless and divided, with a fading Thaksin brand that has lost much of its “new generation” luster as the self-exiled ex-leader approaches 70 years of age.
The military’s long-game strategy of erasing his and his Shinawatra clan’s presence and legacy has to some measure worked. There are concurrent indications Thaksin may also be playing a longer, more conciliatory game in hopes of receiving a royal pardon, seen in the recent unplugging of his son’s oppositional Voice TV news station and appointment of a political kitten, not bulldog, as the party’s new leader.
The real “new generation” party, Future Forward, is clearly the one to watch, not least because the military, conservative elite and perhaps even segments of the royal institution appear to have the upstart party and its top youthful leaders in their sights.
They have reason to fear, to be sure. One recent poll shows that if new elections were held now that Future Forward would win in a romp, with 81% of under 20’s and 67% of 20-30’s favoring the party, significantly even before it has had a chance to prove itself in the parliamentary opposition.
Future Forward, on the offensive this week with claims that at least 54 people, mostly Malay Muslims, have died in military custody since 2014, is at the same time on a back foot. The party and its members now face some 23 accusations and cases, certain of which could lead to its dissolution.
None of the charges look particularly legitimate and any move to dissolve the party on flimsy legal grounds would badly undermine the democratic legitimacy Prayut and his PPRP are now basking in. At least one Western embassy has made that point clearly in private to the government.
Future Forward has overreached early and fallen into certain well-laid political traps, with its PPRP and other conservative elite detractors persistently painting the party as anti-monarchy, always volatile allegations in Thailand’s legal context and particularly under the new firm reign.
But it doesn’t mean the powers-that-be won’t miscalculate in a bid to short-circuit Future Forward’s momentum and move to dissolve the party, or at least unseat its charismatic founder and leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, on bogus politicized charges.
One case pending in court claims his party is part of the 18th century Illuminati secret society, implausibly because if the political party’s symbol is inverted it forms a triangle. The same charge sheet claims Future Forward’s push for Thailand to sign the Rome Statute represents a threat to the monarchy.
Another case concerns Thanathorn’s alleged media share-holdings while running for office, a no-no under local law, but an ill-defined charge that would ensnare several other ruling politicians with previous private business interests if applied equally.
Thanathorn, 40, has already suggested in press interviews his party’s dissolution would be just cause for his youthful supporters to take to the streets, setting up a potential clash of what would, rightly or wrongly, be readily portrayed as a clash of democratic and military forces.
It’s the political dynamic to watch moving forward, much more so than the conservative elite’s age-old tussle with Thaksin.
Other potential sources of instability could come from one scandal or another, or more likely a combination of many. Political parties in PPRP’s wide umbrella coalition are no doubt hungry to feed their patronage networks after five years on the outside under direct military rule.
That was plain for all to see in the hard-fought negotiations for lucrative ministerial portfolios, a bitter tussle that almost brought the government down before it was even formed.
The squabbling revealed divisions among three main PPRP factions – one military under Prayut, one technocratic under Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, and one of old-school operators who manufactured PPRP’s election win – and signaled a potential future source of intra-government instability.
Some analysts suggest the situation could very quickly turn into a ministerial feeding frenzy, one that makes ex-prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan’s notorious “buffet Cabinet” look like a tea time snack, particularly if signs emerge that the government could be more short-lived than anticipated.
It’s demise would then become a sort of self-fulfilling, widely projected prophecy, with all of the attendant scandals and corruption the Peua Thai and Future Forward opposition will be only too happy to expose. Cannon fodder for a no-confidence debate is quickly emerging.
A Sydney Morning Herald report citing court and other official documents revealed this week that Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompow was jailed for four years in Australia for smuggling 3.2 kilograms of heroin while in active military service, and was later after changing his name implicated but acquitted in the rape and murder of a Thai academic, will make an early and easy opposition target.
Thammanat, who according to documents told Australian police he had served as a royal bodyguard, is now widely seen as the “enforcer” in Prayut’s government, charged with keeping disparate parties in relative line. He had earlier downplayed the conviction but now says he plans to sue the newspaper.
Certain Bangkok-based diplomats and analysts believe that Thammanat’s name was not on Prayut’s original Cabinet list submitted to the palace but was on the one finally returned with the monarch’s endorsement.
While Thailand has returned to democratic politics, the concurrent rise of a more assertive monarchy adds new complicated dynamics, ones that may be hard to decipher and ones that some observers suggest could morph into an unspoken democracy versus monarchy contest, depending on how each side plays their hands in the months ahead.
It is thus perhaps unsurprising that when a string of low-grade bombs detonated coincident with last month’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign minister meeting in Bangkok, Prayut’s coming out party as a rehabilitated elected leader, the list of credible suspects was long and wide.
Analysts have suggested variously that the culprits were peeved southern insurgents making a well-timed political point, pro-Thaksin operatives keen to knock Prayut’s stability narrative with global leaders in attendance, or even rogue police piqued by Prayut and the military’s carving up and undercutting of their interests.
While nobody has yet taken responsibility for the mostly symbolic blasts, it is clear that various actors have incentive to rock his new government’s foundation.
And while the true culprits will likely never be known, the bombs indicated elections and a democratic transition haven’t resolved various still simmering issues under the mainstream political surface, which while not poised to blow now could yet erupt before an orderly electoral transition in four years time.
This analysis is adapted from a recent Asia Times presentation made to a delegation of visiting foreign investors in Bangkok.