Activists fear ‘political vacuum’ after Thai election could bring another coup

John Bechtel and Uayporn Satitpanyapan
Activists fear ‘political vacuum’ after Thai election could bring another coup Yingcheep Atchanont, executive director of NGO iLaw (left), and scholar Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who lives in Japan, discuss concerns about the upcoming Thai general election during a meeting at the Human Rights Watch office in Washington, March 22, 2023.
Uayporn Satitpanyapan/BenarNews

Thailand’s election in May could result in no party winning a clear mandate, likely forcing the longtime opposition Pheu Thai party and a military-backed one to form an alliance, Thai activists and academics told BenarNews this week.

The activists expressed concern that such an outcome during the May 14 election could produce an unstable government and ultimately set the stage for yet another military takeover.

“What we see is that if you have a minority and nonfunctional government, when the government collapses, there will be a vacuum,” said Ruchapong Chamjirachaikul, a political specialist at the Thai digital and legal rights NGO iLaw.

“And if Thai history has taught us anything, whenever there is a public political vacuum, there’s always a coup.”

Ruchapong was one of six Thai democracy advocates who met lawmakers and officials in Washington this week to urge them not to approve a flawed election and to impose consequences for human rights violations in Thailand.

“We don’t want the U.S. to certify at all if it doesn’t represent the will of the people. We want the U.S. to pay attention to the structural flaws of the upcoming election,” said Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi, founder of the Association for Thai Democracy.

“Beyond that, we also still want the U.S. to pay attention to human rights violations in Thailand.”

An unlikely alliance

The activists presented the possibility that the pro-democracy Pheu Thai party, founded by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, could align with the Palang Pracharath Party and its nominee, retired Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon.

Palang Pracharath came to power following the military coup that in 2014 overthrew Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, eight years after he suffered a similar fate.

“They could be forced to form a coalition,” Yingcheep Atchanont, executive director of iLaw, told BenarNews.

He added that election rules put in place by the current government would prevent Pheu Thai from forming a government on its own.

For decades, Pheu Thai has won the most votes of any party competing in Thai elections, reflecting its popularity in rural areas and in the country’s northeast.

After coming to power in a 2014 coup, and prior to the 2019 election, the junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha changed Thailand’s electoral system to allow 250 senators appointed by the ruling party vote for the nation’s next prime minister.

Because the senators are expected to vote as a unit for someone from the ruling party, pro-democracy candidates likely could fail to reach the 376 count needed to hold the top elected office even if they won a majority of the lower house seats.

“There’s a high probability that Pheu Thai and the general’s party could form a government together,” Yingcheep said, adding the two parties would need to negotiate to reach a plan to govern.

The 2022 election in neighboring Malaysia followed a similar trajectory. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had to form an alliance with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), his longtime nemesis, to take the reins of government.

About 52 million Thais are eligible to go to the polls to vote for 500 lower house members of parliament. Sometime later – the date has not yet been announced – 750 members of the upper and lower houses of parliament will vote for the nation’s next prime minister.

Pheu Thai party politician Paetongtarn “Ung Ing” Shinawatra, a daughter of Thaksin, has been strongly favored in opinion surveys for at least nine months.

Suppressing the youth vote?

Earlier this week, after the Thai parliament was dissolved, the Election Commission announced that voting would be on May 14 and not on May 7 as had been widely expected.

The activists said the move was likely aimed at suppressing the youth vote, as May 14 is a day when university students will be taking final exams.

May 7, on the other hand, is the end of a long holiday weekend that begins with Coronation Day on May 4, so many Thais would have been able to return to their hometowns to vote. Those who don’t return home have to file paperwork in advance to vote in another jurisdiction.

On Monday, U.S. Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Durbin of Illinois called for the Thai government to “create conditions for credible and fair elections.”

“Such efforts would require the government to enable opposition parties and political leaders to carry out their activities without undue interference from state authorities,” and to ensure “the tallying of votes is fair and transparent,” said a non-binding resolution the two sponsored.

“The people of Thailand deserve fair and free elections,” Markey said in a news release.

“Our resolution will make that clear to the government of Thailand. The United States must show its support for human rights and democracy so that the political power is back in the hands of Thailand’s people – not military leaders.”

In February, 30 Thai human rights and civil society groups sent an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing concern that the vote is “occurring within political, constitutional, and legal frameworks that do not make free and fair elections possible.

“We are deeply concerned that the elections could result in a disputed outcome and prolonged political instability. Thailand’s security forces have a record of responding to protests, peaceful and otherwise, with excessive force,” it said.

“It is vital that the international community, and the United States in particular as one of Thailand’s closest and most powerful allies, speak directly about the consequences of violating the rights and freedoms of the Thai people,” the letter said.


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