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Worry and Wildcards in Thai Polls

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2019-03-21
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Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the Thai junta chief and a PM candidate upcoming elections, greets local supporters as he attends a government-sponsored event in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, March 13, 2019.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the Thai junta chief and a PM candidate upcoming elections, greets local supporters as he attends a government-sponsored event in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, March 13, 2019.
AP

Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET on 2019-03-21

As Thais prepare to vote Sunday in their country’s first parliamentary election after five years of military rule, the junta has tried everything to prolong its hold on power but remains concerned about the outcome.

Despite putting their hand on the scale, there are still many factors that the ruling generals cannot control.

Apart from postponing polls at least five times since the military seized power in a May 2014 coup, the junta has gerrymandered districts to disenfranchise the vote in opposition-leaning regions; created a military-appointed senate; relied on draconian cyber security and Lese-Majeste laws to silence the opposition; drafted a constitution that favors small parties; and actively campaigned when it banned political parties from doing so.

The recent disbandment of the Thai Raksa Chart Party that followed its bold gambit to nominate Princess Ubolratana as their prime ministerial candidate shows the extent to which the junta is willing to go to keep the opposition weak and the regime’s party, Palang Pracharat, in the driver’s seat.

Under the new constitution, 376 seats in the legislature’s two chambers are needed to win and select a prime minister. The junta can clearly count on the 250-member appointed Senate to back them. The Senate will be named following the 24 March election.

Of the 500 lower house seats, 350 are proportional seats. Gerrymandering and re-districting has taken some seats out of regions dominated by anti-junta parties. And the constitution's new process for allocating the 150 party list seats favors small parties.

Seventy-six separate parties are contesting the March 24 polls – most of them at the local level – but the sheer number of parties makes prognostication difficult.

The pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, which is running coup leader and incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, is unpopular. In the most recent poll, they were predicted to win only 62 seats, despite being one of the few parties running a nationwide slate of candidates. The 62 figure is far short of the 126 seats the party needs to form a government.

Their calculation is that they can win enough seats, and with the backing of the Senate and a quiescent coalition partner, such as Bhumjaithai, they can get to 376 seats needed to retain power.

X factors

Wild cards, however, are keeping the junta on edge.

Of Thailand’s 51.4 million eligible voters, a quarter are between 18 and 35 years old. Seven million of them have never voted before. Polling to date sees almost no support from young voters for Palang Pracharat, including for the party’s small cadre of younger candidates.

And if the early voting held last weekend is anything to go by, the pent-up demand for return to civilian rule is strong. Of the 2.6 million voters who were eligible for early voting, the turnout rate was 87 percent; significantly higher than the 75 percent voter turnout rate in the last elections in 2011.

The party that has captured the support of urban youth is the Future Forward Party, led by a charismatic 40-year old billionaire, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has campaigned on issues such as slashing the military budget and amending the constitution. The junta has threatened Future Forward with legal dissolution, showing how much they fear it. Future Forward’s weakness is that as a brand new party, it is not running candidates across the country.  

The dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart was a major blow to the opposition.

Pheu Thai, the political vehicle of ousted prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, understood that the constitution favored small parties. So, factions of Pheu Thai, including Thai Raksa Chart, broke off and became independent parties.

It is expected that Pheu Thai will win a plurality of votes – probably 130 to 140 seats – and then cobble together a coalition government with its two or three allies and a handful of other parties. As such, many of the pro-Thaksin parties did not run candidates in competition with one another. Therefore, if a Pheu Thai candidate was really strong in an electoral district, Thai Raksa Chart wouldn’t run a candidate, and vice versa.  

There are also many districts where there are not Pheu Thai candidates who would automatically pick up the supporters of Thai Raksa Chart. We simply do not know how they will vote now. It is unlikely that they will vote for Palang Pracharat, but who collects their vote is just not clear on a nationwide basis.

As for Thaksin, he has been unusually quiet in the run-up to the polls. He knows that if he is too outspoken and tries to fund candidates overtly or direct their platforms, the junta will move quickly to disqualify those candidates.

The Democrat Party, meanwhile, is trying to position itself as the compromise choice. It is outspoken against the junta, and its leaders have said that they will not support Prayuth Chan-o-cha as a prime ministerial candidate.

Yet the Democrats have largely discredited themselves by actively encouraging the coup in 2014, having repeatedly been crushed in elections. Many longstanding Democrats couldn’t tolerate a coalition with any of the pro-Thaksin parties. At the same time, the Democrats have much less support in Bangkok in the face of a credible alternative posed by Future Forward.  

Post-poll uncertainty

After Sunday’s vote, the much discredited Election Commission will need to certify electoral results within 60 days.

It is that window, in which coalition governments are negotiated, where the junta is most likely to intervene. It is possible that the court case against Future Forward and its top leadership proceeds and the party is disbanded.

That – and any other maneuvers deemed by the anti-junta electorate as stealing the election – will almost certainly prompt a new wave of street protests.  

The Thai army chief has not ruled out another coup, warning that either corrupt politicians or those who are anti-monarchy, would trigger another military intervention. A new round of civil unrest would also justify direct military action.

And that is no wildcard.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.

CORRECTION: An earlier version misreported that leaders of the Democrat Party said they would not join the Palang Pracharat Party in a coalition. 

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