ooking at the big picture, Thailand’s upcoming general election is more than just another round of voting for the country’s next set of lawmakers and leader. It is actually a continuation of the Thais’ search for a lasting social contract — a search for the exact political system that will serve the people’s interests first, and more than anyone else’s.
This can be seen in the continued struggle to put the military back to the barracks and reform it after the coups in 2006 and 2014, which the opposition Move Forward Party has vowed to accomplish. It can also be seen in a key policy pledge by the ruling Phalang Pracharath Party to “transcend political divide,” despite the fact that it is a military front that enabled junta leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha to become prime minister after the 2019 general election, and is arguably a crucial part in the country’s protracted political conflicts.
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy for nearly a century now. But it also has a long history of military coups that unseated elected governments, with the most recent putsch putting the present prime minister, a former army chief, in office in 2014. In its 2023 Freedom in the World Report, the global rights watchdog Freedom House says that Thailand is “not free,” scoring only 30 out of 100, where 100 means the citizens of a particular country are able to exercise all their guaranteed rights. Yet just last February, acting government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri was crowing that Thailand’s democracy index ranking had improved significantly, citing the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ranking system for 2022 that had the country leaping 17 places to 55th out of 167 nations, from its previous 72nd spot.
By way of the last election, the sitting government has argued that it has put Thailand back on the democratic path. Prayut has even opted out of Phalang Pracharath and is now the standard bearer of the United Thai Nation Party, which he joined just this January. Yet the military still looms large over much of the country’s affairs, and even has 250 junta-appointed legislators who, under the current junta-sponsored constitution, will have the right to vote along with the 500 elected MPs to choose the next prime minister. This means the May 14 general election cannot be described as “fair”; one-third of the people who will vote for the next premier had been selected by then junta leader General Prayut – who is running for a third term as prime minister (his first in 2014, when he led a coup that ousted the elected government, and in 2019, when he was elected prime minister by the Thai parliament).
Two other factors that may make the upcoming election less than fair are the Election Commission’s not reporting real-time vote count and the alleged gerrymandering the new boundary of constituencies in favor of the two conservative parties. But it is the military’s 250-strong ace in the hole that has many worried the most.
Noted Thammasat University law lecturer Parinya Thewanaruemitkul, who was an anti-junta student leader during the May 1992 uprising, has repeatedly urged the 250 senators to respect the will of the people by either abstaining from voting for the next prime minister or not voting against the choice supported by the party with the largest number of MPs after the election. The main opposition Pheu Thai Party, which many believe has the ousted and fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra as its the real leader, has also been telling voters to give it a landslide victory of at least 310 MPs. That way, it can be certain that the 250 junta-appointed senators will not be the final arbiter on who the next premier will be.
Over the last several months, Pheu Thai has been leading in virtually all polls. It is clearly the public favorite, but whether or not it can clinch 310 seats or even just 250 – the simple majority — is another matter. In addition, sending Prayut into retirement along with his former deputy junta leader, General Prawit Wongsuwan, now the head of the ruling Phalang Pracharath and a PM candidate as well, will require at least 376 votes in parliament. That’s over half of 750 votes, from 500 elected MPs and 250 junta-sponsored senators combined. At the very least, a coalition government is a near certainty.
But while military reform and efforts to put the rogue armed forces under civilian control and military reform are garnering the most attention in discussions among voters and opposition politicians alike, there are at least two more key issues on the table in the May poll: reform of the monarchy and the lèse-majesté law, as well as the economy, which was left struggling by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The youth-led monarchy reform movement that took to the streets of Bangkok and beyond in 2020 has since widened to include a call for the reform of the lèse-majesté law, if not for its outright abolition. These young protesters also demand monarchy reform, and some harbor republican sentiment. At present, the only parties that vow to reform the lèse-majesté law are the opposition Move Forward and Commoners; the main opposition Pheu Thai Party has refused to commit itself to amending the law. With the Commoners Party led by LGBTQ activist Waaddao Chumaporn seen to have little chance of winning a single seat based on its previous electoral performance, many young, reform-minded voters are expected to cast their ballots for Move Forward.
For most of these youths, the issue of the monarchy is at the heart of the country’s need for reform. The fact that virtually all mainstream Thai press routinely exercise self censorship on anything deemed mildly critical of the monarchy or negative of the institution means there is a fundamental lack of press freedom and free speech.
Freedoms and finances
The latest state of the world’s human rights annual report for 2022/2023 by Amnesty International released last March noted that from January to September 2022, Thai authorities blocked 4,735 web pages, including 1,816 “deemed to be in violation of the lèse-majesté law.” The report also pointed out that in February 2022, the Digital Economy and Society Ministry revealed that the government was considering creating a single internet gateway “to tighten official control over internet usage.” As for those charged under the lèse-majesté law or for partaking in anti-government protests, the report said that from mid-2020 to September 2022, “at least 1,860 individuals, including 283 children, faced criminal proceedings for expressing views critical of the government.”
“Between January and June ,” it added, “more than 200 individuals were charged with lèse-majesté, the highest number in Thailand’s history.”
Just last January, a 14-year-old girl was summoned by the police after an ultra-royalist accused her of attending a demonstration last year near the Bangkok City Hall and writing a protest placard. Late this March, a 15-year-old girl was arrested while accompanying a 25-year-old graffiti protester who spray-painted an anti-lèse-majesté law message and anarchy symbol on the wall of the Grand Palace/Emerald Buddha Temple; she is now in pre-trial detention.
Yet even if they had not attracted the attention of authorities, these two teenagers would be unable to vote; Thais must be at least 18 years old to be able to cast a ballot. But it would be a mistake to ignore the youth vote. In 2021, Thais between the ages of 16 to 35 years old already made up 19 percent of the country’s population.
The savvy main opposition Pheu Thai knows, however, that majority of the voters may be more concerned about reviving the Thailand’s flagging economy, which is currently among the slowest growing in Southeast Asia. Its PM candidate is Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn, who despite her jet-set background seems able to relate well with her father’s working-class and rural supporters who have been hurt the most by the economic downturn. Still, she is a political neophyte; Pheu Thai recently appointed real-estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin as the party’s chief economic advisor, and he could be made the alternative PM candidate in the weeks before the election.
Conscious of the negative perception of royalists of the Shinawatras and Pheu Thai, the party has been also trying to downplay any suggestion that it constitutes a threat to the monarchy institution. Rumors have even spread of a possible coalition between Pheu Thai and Phalang Pracharath. If that’s believable and possible, then any expectation of sending the army back to barracks and out of politics is not about to be fulfilled any time soon.
Coup rumors had also spread in March, and both Prayut and Prawit had to play down the prospect of yet another military power grab. Although a coup before or soon after the May election is highly unlikely — because it would be difficult to justify its timing — Thailand has had 13 “successful” coups since the revolt that ended absolute monarchy in 1932.
No one can truly say with confidence that there won’t be yet another coup. Indeed, the fact that some Thais continue to be willing to support a military takeover as a “corrective measure” to Thai electoral politics only means they still cannot agree on the exact political system they want to have – thus the lack of genuine social contract in Thai society.” ●
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a long-time advocate of press freedom, is a columnist and senior staff writer at Khaosod English.