Originally Published 2019-03-05 08:28:26 Published on Mar 05, 2019
The system is configured to the military’s advantage, but Thaksin Shinawatra may hold the key
A pivotal election in Thailand

After repeated postponements by the military government in Thailand, the country’s general elections are now scheduled to be held on March 24. Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, the daughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and eldest of four siblings, created a political tsunami recently by announcing her candidature for prime ministership. Ms. Ubolratana’s political bid — she had renounced her royal status and privileges after her past marriage to an American national — was rejected by her brother, the current King, Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, who said that such a high-ranking member of the royal family entering the political fray was against the country’s royal customs, tradition and culture.

Electoral realities

Ms. Ubolratana challenged the Election Commission guidelines which prohibit parties involving members of the royal family in politics and elections, by claiming that her status is that of a commoner. The King objected to this argument, asserting that she remains a member of the royal family despite her renouncing her royal status. Ms. Ubolratana’s announcement and the King’s public statement opposing her candidature left no wiggle room for the Election Commission, which has since announced the list of official candidates for prime ministership without her name on it.

A colourful personality, Ms. Ubolratana, who is very well educated, has been active in social welfare projects in Thailand. She established a close rapport with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is currently in exile. She registered as the prime ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party, which is allied with the Pheu Thai Party he had established. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was Prime Minister too, till she was overthrown in 2014 by the current military junta, headed by the former Army Chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Ms. Shinawatra too is in exile after the military junta managed to convict her in a case of rice subsidies for farmers.

The Pheu Thai Party remains the most popular political party in Thailand, with a largely rural vote base in the relatively more populated rice growing north-east of the country. Mr. Shinawatra, a telecom tycoon, retains his popularity among Thailand’s rural voters and urban sections of the working class, primarily because of his efforts to institutionalise cheap health care and subsidies for agriculture. His supporters appear to have glossed over his financial malpractices.

Ms. Ubolratana is the first royal family member to throw her hat into the ring of politics since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Pitched against a royal opponent, Gen. Prayuth would have run into the realm of the unknown, given the respect and adulation that Thais extend to the royal family.

A staunch royalist, Gen. Prayuth may possibly be receiving a helping hand from the King who may want to avoid any political upheavals before his formal coronation in May. Gen. Prayuth has already announced his candidature for Prime Minister representing the Palang Pracharath Party, which is pro-military. Gen. Prayuth’s main opposition will come from the Pheu Thai Party.

The electoral outcome will dictate the shape of the next government. Will there be a national unity government with participation by the major parties? This question has arisen because the King may want a show of unity, with him being the rallying point. It is no secret that the King had close ties to Mr. Shinawatra.

The pro-royalist Democratic Party, led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is holding its cards close to its chest; his public stance is that his party will not join any coalition with the Pheu Thai or any party which is seen as a front for the military.

The Pheu Thai Party is tipped to win a free and fair election in Thailand. Hence the military government has worked assiduously to scuttle this prospect. One such threat is a possible ban on the party by the Election Commission if Mr. Shinawatra is found to be involved in the party’s decision-making. Mr. Shinawatra meanwhile has been refusing to kowtow to military diktats and uses social media to broadcast his views, some of them critical of the ruling military junta. The Pheu Thai Party in turn strictly avoids any mention of Mr. Shinawatra in its campaign and public pronouncements.

The military’s gameplan

The Thai military junta has consistently tried to re-engineer politics, first by promulgating a new Constitution in 2017, prohibiting political meetings and campaigning by political parties. In this it has found a ready pool of political opportunists, hankering for power. Gen. Prayuth has used the opportunity to campaign in the countryside under the cover of roving cabinet meetings. The 2017 Constitution was crafted to prevent the Pheu Thai Party from forming a government again, and a proportional representation system designed to deprive it of parliamentary seats, even if it won the majority of constituencies. The Pheu Thai has, therefore, created a front of several political parties, so that all get a few seats under the proportional representation system. This network will also help it function in the extreme event of any ban being imposed on the party.

Thai politics, long dominated by the royal family and the Thai military, with the support of the Bangkok-based business elite, remains in eternal search of an orderly democratic transition. Elected civilian governments are routinely ousted by the army, earning Thailand the dubious distinction for among the highest number of coups d’état. The cat-and-mouse game between the army and political parties has persisted for decades.

Thailand’s military is loathe to part with power and has skewed the polity to prevent a strong and vibrant democracy from taking root. Yet the democratic urge of the Thai people cannot be suppressed. The outcome of the forthcoming election — under a flawed Constitution — may not truly reflect the people’s mandate, though the restoration of the democratic process will redeem in some measure the people’s democratic aspirations.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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