After five previous postponements Thailand's National Council on Peace and Order (NCPO) has potentially delayed elections yet again, although the country's military rulers had promised to hold polls within two and a half years of seizing power through a May 2014 coup d’etat. Expectations were high that elections would proceed following the lifting of a ban on political parties on Dec. 11, 2018.
Under the junta’s own electoral rules, elections must be held within 150 days of the start of the election season, by May 9, 2019. It was just announced that the coronation of the King would take place on 4-6 May 2019. Apparently holding elections before that would dishonor the King, and holding them immediately after appears to be a bridge too far.
On Jan. 7, the Ministry of Interior instructed government officials to stop preparing for the February elections. There are growing calls for March 10 as a compromise. The junta could try to use Section 44 of the Constitution to delay the election, but not everyone believes that meets the very low threshold for the article to be invoked.
The junta has every incentive to stall because in all the polling that has been conducted by their own Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), the winner of the election will be the Pheu Thai party, which itself or in previous incarnations has won every election since 2001, prompting two coups.
Even if polls go forward, this will not in any way be a free and fair election. This is as rigged as it gets.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha enjoys the powers of incumbency. He can give handouts and subsidies at will, especially because the sitting parliament was hand-selected and is dominated by the military and ultra-royalist elites.
He holds cabinet meetings around the countryside, increasingly in opposition strongholds, just to give him photo ops and chances to shower farmers with development projects and cash handouts, despite justifying the coup on the previous government doing the same thing, then described as “corrupt.”
Prayuth has Section 44 of the Constitution, which gives him powers of preventative detention as well as absolute power to give any order deemed necessary to “strengthen public unity and harmony” or to prevent acts that undermine public peace.
The junta also has draconian laws at its disposal.
It recently threatened eight Pheu Thai members with sedition for holding a press conference that criticized the junta and its policies. Likewise, it has charged three leaders of the Future Forward Party with violating the Computer Crimes Act. Article 112 of the Criminal Code, Lese-Majeste, has been used over 100 times since the 2014 coup.
The junta has also used gerrymandering.
There has been a significant consolidation of districts that the Pheu Thai dominated. At the same time, we have seen a proliferation of districts where the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party (PPP) was either polling well or had received important defectors from other parties.
The ballot was redesigned. It is both complicated and lists no candidates’ names.
The regime has been able to ban politicians from political activity for five years, with little evidence or cause, for arbitrary electoral violations. It, likewise, can legally dismantle political parties.
The regime still heavily censors the media. In late December, the parties requested the junta to lift media restrictions. So far, the junta has refused.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission has long been a political tool for boxing in the Pheu Thai party: while the Deputy Prime Minister was recently acquitted of corruption, it was so brazen that three of the five of the junta’s hand-selected commissioners voted against Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, and there were both public and political calls for the NACC commissioners to be impeached.
At the core of the rigged system is the Constitution, which does two main things that impact elections.
First, it transfers significant power from parliament to unelected bodies whose membership is controlled by senior military officials and ultra-royalist elites, with no accountability and oversight.
One of those is the Electoral Commission, which has ostensibly tried to assert its independence of the junta, and yet always bows to the NCPO’s demands.
It also includes the 250-person Senate. The junta will directly select 194 members. Six other seats will go to the senior-most military officials. The remaining 50 will be chosen from among representatives of 10 societal groups after an opaque selection process marred by allegations of corruption.
Second, the constitution is designed to hurt large parties. The lower house will have 500 seats. 350 seats will be first-past-the-post members from geographical constituencies. This is down from 375 in the last constitution, intentionally to hurt the Pheu Thai, which dominated rural politics.
The remaining 150 are party-list seats, which are allocated to the parties on the basis of their share of the overall vote. But the Election Commission changed the mathematical formula that they use to calculate party list seats to hurt the large parties.
The junta’s goal is to make sure no party gets an outright majority, and that any government formed will be a weak and unstable coalition, which the military will be able to influence in some way. There are currently some 27 parties competing in the election.
This is why the Senate is so important: under the new Constitution, both houses elect the prime minister, rather than just the lower house. Thus a party needs 376 votes (alone or with coalition partners) to form a government. With the Junta controlling most of the 250 Senate seats, that is a very tall order.
The Pheu Thai party believes that it will win a majority of the vote and can establish a government with or without coalition partners. Unless it serves as the locus of anti-junta sentiment, this is highly unlikely.
And it faces specific restrictions.
The junta has banned Pheu Tai from using the images of ousted prime ministers Thaksin or Yingluck Shinawatra. The military government has, likewise, threatened to ban the Pheu Thai if Thaksin is found to have direct financial or other influence over its members and policies.
This is highly subjective and we should expect the Electoral Commission to disqualify a number of top Pheu Thai leaders.
The Pheu Thai still has deep roots in the north and northeast, and is expected to do well there. But it has lost a number of safe seats through gerrymandering. It is expected to win under 200 seats.
The party has discussed intentionally splintering into four smaller parties, to deflect the attention of the junta, as well as capitalize on a process that favors smaller parties, but would diminish its “brand.”
The Future Forward Party is headed by a young and charismatic billionaire who is trying to position himself as the progressive alternative. His party is attracting the support of urban youth and the middle class.
The Future Forward party is running on a campaign of scrapping the Junta-drafted constitution, reducing the military's budget and size (in particular halving the size of the officer corps), and amending the Computer Crimes Act and other draconian laws that the junta has used to crush dissent, including – obliquely – Article 112 (Lese-Majeste).
Future Forward’s quick surge in popular support and on social media has scared the junta, which sees them as a wild card able to capitalize on the upper middle class’s frustration with the junta's economic underperformance. But they have limited appeal outside cities.
The Democrat Party is still led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva, who was largely discredited by his role in the extra-legal street protests of 2013-14 that resulted in the coup.
After past coups, the military handed power back to trusted royalist elites; and it was clear that Abhisit was expecting the Democrats to be handed key government positions. He only became critical of the junta when it clung to power. In the run-up to elections, he once again found his democratic roots.
Abhisit is positioning himself as an acceptable compromise candidate: a guardian of the democratic moral high ground, a defender of the monarchy, acceptable enough to the junta, the military leadership, ultra-monarchists, as well as voters who are concerned that continued support for Pheu Thai will only invite continued military interference in politics.
The Democrat Party is, however, losing ground in its two geographical strongholds. In the south, the new Prachachart party of Wan Nor Mohammed, the former minister of interior in Thaksin’s government, is likely to dominate the Muslim-dominated Deep South, where an insurgency is now in its 16th year and government or pro-establishment parties are expected to fare poorly.
The Democrat’s other stronghold is Bangkok, where they will continue to lose ground to the Pheu Thai (supported by the urban poor) or the Future Forward Party (middle class and youth).
The last traditional Democrat constituency, ultra-royalists, is likely to be split with the new pro-junta party, which is trying to win over defectors from the Democrats. The Democrat Party, which is the oldest party in Thailand, is expected to win about 80-100 seats. It won 160 seats in the 2011 election.
The Palang Pracharat Party was recently established by members of the Junta cabinet, despite the ban on politics. The party quickly won over 150 established politicians, defectors from other parties, to create a core membership.
Four current cabinet members are actively campaigning for the party. Their selling point is stability, that the junta and the coup saved the country from chaos, that they are the firm hand on the tiller. And yet the public has tired of military rule.
Under new electoral guidelines, each party has to announce the candidates that it would nominate for prime minister, should it either win an outright majority or be invited to form a government.
Since last summer, Prayuth has searched for a party that would like to run him as their candidate. The pro-junta PPP is not listing him as their candidate, even though in December it announced that it would “invite him.”
Clearly Prayuth is terrified that the PPP is going to fare poorly in the election, which would be a personal humiliation. If he stands above politics, then he can be better served by being “drafted” to serve as a compromise prime minister.
The PPP is expected to win around 70 constituency seats and 60 party list seats (it is clearly going to do better in the latter). This should make the PPP the second largest party.
It is also important to note that few parties in Thailand are actually big or well-enough resourced to run in all 350 constituencies as well as in the party list. Only three parties, Pheu Thai, Democrat Party, and PPP, are expected to field a full 500 candidates. Again, this favors smaller regionally-based parties.
Right now, the parties are quietly discussing coalitions. Pheu Thai is courting the Thai Raksa Chart Party, Prachachart Party, and Future Forward.
Pheu Thai also reached out to its long-time rivals, the Democrats, about forming a broad based-anti-junta coalition. Abhisit immediately rejected the offer. The PPP will also reach out to the Democrats. And there are a host of other parties that could be bought off and serve as king-makers.
An end to coups?
The junta has often said that it had designed the Constitution so that it would never have to throw a coup again. And, actually, I believe them. The goal of this Constitution is that the military doesn’t have to mount another coup.
They have all the power and can control things “legally” through a system that they control, through unelected and unaccountable bodies, overseeing a weak and fractious coalition government.
Nonetheless the new Army chief, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, announced last October that he would not rule out staging another coup. He was not reprimanded for that statement.
Thai military interference in politics is here to stay, and with it, will come years more of political instability and lost opportunities for Thai economic, political, and diplomatic leadership in the region.
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.
This has been updated to correct the date on which the Interior Ministry instructed government officials to stop preparing for elections in February. This version also corrects the name and acronym for the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP).