Will they…won’t they? Speculating on the proposed 2019 election

 |  August 1, 2018

The task of following Thai politics, particularly from an outsider’s perspective, can be quite daunting. Historically, Thai politics have been highly unstable, having had 17 different charters and constitutions since becoming a democracy in 1932. Recently, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced that elections would be held before May of 2019. This statement confirmed doubts about the likelihood of the previously promised February 2019 election, which itself was a delay of a promise for an election in November 2018, and seven previously proposed and delayed dates since the coup d’etat in 2014. It remains to be seen if the election will happen by May 2019. The determining factor for the date seems to be whether or not the regime will be able to maintain power post-election.

Despite the delays, there is also a sense that change is rapidly approaching…whatever that may entail. May 2018 marked the four-year anniversary of junta rule. This continual period of military control is unusual for Thailand, despite the fact that there have been 11 successful military coups since 1932. This extended period of military control with no end in sight leaves many feeling restless. Panuwat Panprasert, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration says, “One of the inevitable things is that the public is going to get fed up with whoever is ruling the country because there will be scandals that are detrimental to the government which could destroy the trust that the public have in the regime.”

The recent success of the Tham Luang Cave rescue goes a long way to mitigate any recent signs of frustration with the government. According to the New York Times the rescue was “a hair-raising human drama with no government culprit that could unite the country and distract it from politics.” The government’s involvement with the rescue made the junta appear compassionate and competent, endearing them to the public. In addition, several countries that have imposed sanctions against the administration sent personnel to support the Thai rescue teams. While this doesn’t indicate acceptance of the junta, it does show a certain acknowledgement and a kind of legitimacy it sorely needs following the coup. Additionally, Gen. Prayut has been touring Thailand, speaking to small communities, and earmarking B30bn to be used to improve villages. While the government insists this was done for the good of the public, the image of General Prayut as helpful and generous is inevitably a desired side effect. It would be naïve to say that the public dissemination of these funds would have no ramifications on election outcomes. According to the Bangkok Post, “[this project] has drawn criticism from numerous quarters, all of whom have accused it of being nothing more than a cynical ploy to score political points ahead of a general election“. Whether this positive PR will result in the formation of a military political party remains to be seen; there are other ways in which the military can maintain a semblance of power post elections. The positive press around the junta post-cave rescue will be the sugar that helps these unelected men in power become more palatable to the public.

While the junta has not directly expressed its interest in maintaining control, there are several indicators that this is the goal. One major gesture toward this is the formation of the pro-regime Phalang Prachart Party (PPP). This group, composed of former MPs from Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, has been accused of bribing other former MPs to leave their parties to join them, a practice Thaksin was regularly accused of throughout the early 2000s. These MPs were allegedly offered cash, debt repayments and salaries as compensation. The bribes are supposedly structured in tiers, with those most likely to win an election receiving the most benefits. These accusations will soon be under investigation by the Election Commission. The poaching could have a strong impact on the success of other parties. A recent survey indicated that 45.67% of respondents said their voting choices would be based on individual candidates rather than party loyalty. The PPP has allegedly met to draft policy, an activity which violates the NCPO’s political activity ban. However, it has also been claimed that Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, deputy chairmen of the NCPO, has been supportive of the party and stands behind them. If the shady dealings of the group continue unhindered, the rumours that the group is a vehicle for General Prayut’s return as PM could be effectively confirmed. PPP has openly pledged to support his possible bid. As of now General Prayut has not formally announced a plan to return as PM, but has said this announcement should come by September.

If the military chooses not to form a party or somehow cannot rouse the necessary votes in an election, they have another key strategy for maintaining their power. The current constitution allows for the placement of an “outsider” prime minister, meaning that the person who becomes prime minister is not required to be linked to the party that holds the majority of seats within parliament. Panuwat explains, “for Thailand, one of the principles that we have stuck to since the event in 1992 is that the prime minister must be elected. This new constitution gets rid of that principle and a lot of people are speculating that this will allow General Prayut to return.” The event Panuwat refers to here is Black May, a series of protests in 1992 that led to multiple disappearances, hundreds of injuries, 52 confirmed deaths and over 3,500 arrests. Several existing parties, including PPP, have confirmed that they would be supportive of General Prayut’s return as the outsider prime minister.

Beyond General Prayut’s potential return as PM, the junta will likely continue to assert power through its 20-year National Strategy, which recently passed unanimously through the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and insists that all future party policies must fit within its framework. Non-compliance could result in the suspension of violators from any position or public office, expulsion, or jail term. Senators, conveniently appointed by the junta shortly before general elections, will monitor compliance. Because of these senators, and the framework itself, the regime will maintain some influence regardless of election outcomes.

Understandably, because of these ever-shifting election dates and accusations of corruption, many have become disillusioned with the political scene. Panuwat specifically points to citizens who came of age in the mid-2000s and have had very little experience of stable politics, “they see Thai politics as something full of chaos. Since 2006 we not only have we had military coups, but we also had many, many rounds of street protests with violence, bloodshed and loss of lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if they give up on politics and retreat back into their personal lives.”

When asked about a solution to this disillusionment, Panuwat discussed the entrance of fresh perspectives to the political scene as a way to reinvigorate political morale, but herein lies another obstacle: the lack of political information available. The NCPO’s ban on political activities means political parties are not allowed to announce their policies or platforms. This leaves voters with very little information from which to make decisions. At this time, voters must rely on the historical positions of parties when considering how to cast their vote. Newer parties without public history and political stance will have difficulty justifying their party as a reasonable option. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam stated that the NCPO is keeping a close watch on new parties. Without the ability to discuss their platform and public stance, it will be difficult to draw the necessary members and voters. These restrictions serve the junta’s extension and the stabilisation of their own power because most parties are hampered by the political ban. In regards to the stunting of major political parties Umesh Pandey, ex-editor of the Bangkok Post (who was relieved from duty in June, sparking claims of political censorship) writes, “The elements that the junta is so keen on squashing would almost certainly return to governance if elections were held tomorrow. Such an outcome would be a slap to the face of a junta that has been in power since May 22, 2014.”

The lack of information about parties that the public receives is further complicated and compounded by the rise of social media and technology. The NCPO seems unsure where to draw boundary lines about the use of the Internet to disseminate political information and it’s unclear what exactly constitutes a violation of their ordinances. While political activity online has been punished in the past, there is value in the critical mass the Internet provides. Because of this the Internet and social media could then serve as a work-around to these ordinances, but its use brings its own set of issues.

Assessing the accuracy of information on the Internet can be difficult for many, especially for those who grew up in a time with different information technology. An older generation, those in their 50s and 60s, seemed to be plagued with issues regarding “fake news” that circulates on social media apps, such as the LINE application. How this will influence any future election remains to be seen, but looking at elections globally is clearly observed the ease with which false political information spreads online. It is plausible that groups could spread false information about their competitors that will seem very real to certain sectors of voters. The inability of parties to announce their platforms clearly could further obfuscate the validity of this information. With certain parties having the political advantage over others, social media provides an opportunity for more margianalised and smaller parties to speak up, or to malign. Parties are aware of this issue and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva recently criticised the EC’s lack of policies about the control of “fake news” and hate speech, saying to the Bangkok Post, “Hate speech and fabricated information are my major concerns when it comes down to the role of social media [in the next national election]. Social media will become a significant tool for political games.” The regime has promised a crackdown on “fake news” after a recent issue with a Facebook post implying corruption in the government’s satellite project. While the removal of fake news may sound like a positive action, those in power may use it as a tool to limit freedom of speech and largely determine what constitutes as fake news.

An additional strain on parties that complicates the election timeline is the requirement of primary elections, which were added to the constitution recently. At these primaries, which must be organised by each party, members will select the candidates they want to run for the constituency and party-list elections. Logistically, it is unlikely that parties would be able to organise primaries in time for a February 2019 election because constituencies are currently being redrawn. Additionally, because the primaries are considered public political activity, they are impossible to hold under the NCPO’s current political activity restrictions. Without any confirmed timeline for rollbacks of the NCPO’s ban, it’s impossible to predict when an election may be held.

Despite all the many challenges, there is hope to be had that Thailand will continue to inch towards more fair and democratic elections. However, even those with political expertise have difficulty in predicting just what the future holds for the Thai political landscape. Certainly change is coming, but it seems only time will tell what those changes will be. Could an election be in store for the near future? It is possible and many hold onto that hope, but there are a number of other directions politics could take. The political prospects of Thailand’s future are a fascinating interplay of factors as groups struggle to gain and maintain power. The path to an election seems to be ever-changing and fraught with many obstacles and challenges.