ith the landslide victory of the two major opposition parties, Move Forward and Pheu Thai, is Thailand hewing closer to a restoration of democracy?
Yes (but it won’t be smooth) and not quite (because Thailand never had a genuine democracy to begin with, so it cannot restore what it has yet to achieve).
Yes, the 14 May general election was a decisive win for pro-democracy Thais. But the question remains whether they will be able to turn that victory into concrete political change and real democratization. After all, conservative forces will not yield that easily and will likely use all available tactics to stall the tide of democracy that has been a long time coming.
It has been nine years since the May 2014 military coup led by General and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. The unofficial vote tally in the recent polls saw Move Forward winning 152 MP seats out of 500 total seats and Pheu Thai 141. Combined with six other small opposition parties, they have 313 out of 500 MP seats – a clear and very comfortable majority that in a normal democracy would automatically ensure that Move Forward leader Pita Limcharoenrat, the party’s PM candidate, will become Thailand’s 30th premier.
Yet a week after the elections, the 42-year-old Ivy League-educated Pita’s future as PM is still anything but a foregone conclusion. This is due to the convoluted and unfair rules laid down by the military junta. The current junta-sponsored constitution, narrowly passed in 2016 through a referendum under a dictatorial climate, means the legacies of military dictatorship under Prayut will last longer. Back then, even those just campaigning against the new charter were arbitrarily arrested. People were also told that if they did not approve it through the referendum, Prayut would stay on as dictator longer, so they should just accept the charter and amend it later.
Thailand’s current constitution stipulates that 250 junta-appointed senators will jointly vote together with the 500 elected MPs for the new PM. This means the 313 votes accrued by the eight-party coalition led by Move Forward Party won’t suffice as the magic number is 376, or a simple majority from 750 bi-cameral votes. To use a football analogy, normally each team has 10 players in the field, but the twisted rules laid down by the Thai military junta means the pro-junta team can field 15 players against 10 players from the pro-democracy camp.
And that’s just the first hurdle to overcome for those wanting change. Should Pita succeed to become Thailand’s 30th prime minister, the military could still find a pretext to intervene once again. Asked less than a week before the general election if the army will intervene if there’s a post-poll political upheaval, Thai army chief General Narongpan Jitkaewthae replied that he cannot guarantee anything although the army would stay on the fence. The army as a state within a state remains even after the election. More than likely, the Move Forward Party, which vows to reform the armed forces, make it more professional, and abolish the unpopular compulsory military conscript, will be facing a lot — and different forms — of resistance.
Resistance upon resistance
Move Forward Party’s pledge to end the system of appointed governors will also likely be met with as fierce a resistance. The system was introduced slightly over a century ago when King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) centralized the kingdom. With Bangkok as the center, he appointed trusted people or trusted local elites to rule on his behalf. In effect, it was a system of self-colonization by Bangkok rulers instead of Thailand being taken over by Western powers. At the time, much of Southeast Asia was in the hands of Western colonizers; Siam, as Thailand was known back then, was the exception. Thais were able to convince Western colonial powers that they could govern themselves and were not savages needing to be civilized.
This system of appointed provincial governors, however, is a prime example of the varied obstacles preventing Thailand from being a true democracy. Indeed, a century after it was crafted, what may have been a modernizing move then is now positively backward and even anti-democratic.
With the exception of Bangkok and major cities like Pattaya, all provinces continue to have to do with a centrally appointed governor sent by the Interior Ministry in Bangkok, an utterly outdated and ineffective system of governance that goes against the wish of locals for decentralization and self-determination. The state, or the deep state, is unlikely to give up this power and control over 76 provinces easily, and it can only be expected that there will be moves to thwart Move Forward’s plan to get rid of the system.
Another key issue is the monarchy and Move Forward’s pledge to reform the controversial lèse-majesté law. Since 2020, the youth-led, monarchy-reform movement has attracted international media attention, with tens of thousands young Thais — some as young as 15 or even younger — taking to the streets and calling for the reform of the monarchy institution. Essentially these young Thais, most of whom have likely voted for Move Forward in the recent elections, are rejecting a monarchy that is above criticism or cannot be held accountable. They want a transparent institution in which criticism of the king is not a crime and tax money going to support the monarchy can be monitored and scrutinized.
Since it was the only major party pushing for reform of the lèse-majesté law, Move Forward and its young supporters are set to meet resistance from the established elites fearing change or alleging that the ultimate goal of the party and these young Thais is to see Thailand turning into a republic or a confederate.
A pressure-cooker regime
Nevertheless, the Thai democratic forces getting to where they stand at the moment is already a huge accomplishment. For sure, they didn’t get there easily. They endured at least nine years of peaceful struggle against military dictatorship and later, semi-military dictatorship. Hundreds have been arbitrarily arrested, sent to military bases for the Orwellian process called “attitude adjustment” in the aftermath of the May 2014 coup, or charged with sedition (this writer among them). Some fled into exile and became active online and called for democracy or even for a revolution that would change Thailand into a republic. Some republicans were abducted and killed abroad, with the bodies of two Thai government critics washing up on the banks of the Mekong River.
Then young Thais who grew up under military rule began saying that “enough is enough” and taking to the streets to demand not just monarchy reform, but an end to quasi-military rule. This was after their favorite party, Future Forward, was dissolved and its leaders, particularly party chief Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, banned from running for office for 10 years, and after the then main opposition Pheu Thai Party failed to form the government following the 2019 general election. The move turned Future Forward into Move Forward Party, which gained even more sympathy and votes three years later.
Ironically, it was the dishonest and absurd military and semi-military rule under Prayut over the past nine years that convinced many voters that change is needed. The regime acted like a pressure cooker with little or no valve for dissent, and young Thais in particular felt the oppression, lies, and injustice. They became politicized and came of age. By the time the most recent polls were held, Thailand had around three million eligible new voters. Those among them who voted likely cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Move Forward, the party for change.
The results of the 14 May general election was thus a result of a deep discontent over Thailand’s lost decade, during which political rights were curtailed and the country’s economy was among Southeast Asia’s worst performers.
The outcome of the election matters to Thailand’s neighbors because it offers hope that a peaceful transition is possible (fingers crossed). One more democratic member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is definitely better for the region’s rule of law and state of democracy in general. Moreover, it shows that perseverance and fortitude have their virtues. Thailand’s bid to become a genuine democracy since the 1932 revolt, which ended absolute monarchy and introduced parliamentary democracy, was repeatedly interrupted by successive ‘successful’ military coups – 13 in all.
Ensuring civilian supremacy over the military will not happen overnight, but democracy-loving Thais have proven themselves time and again, and over generations, that they will keep trying while minimizing the level of unnecessary violence and bloodshed. Then again, some can argue that because Thais have no appetite for large-scale bloodshed and would rather resort to compromises, a real break or political revolution cannot take place.
One former prime minister told this writer just a few days before the election that this is “Thailand’s last chance.” Perhaps it’s the last chance for Thais to prevent more lost decades. ●
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a long-time advocate of press freedom, is a columnist and senior staff writer at Khaosod English.