Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Nearly three weeks have passed since Thailand’s national election on March 24. Yet the country remains in a state of dangerous uncertainty. The ruling junta has yet to confirm the results, leaving Thais to worry about what comes next. One thing, however, has already become clear: This election, which was supposed to bring Thailand closer to a democratic transition, has done just the opposite.
The elections were the first nationwide polls since the coup of 2014 that overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. In the period leading up to the latest vote, the Thai generals have been taking off their uniforms and switching to a new civilian look, suggesting that the military might be stepping out of politics.
Yet the delay of the election results suggests that the military government of junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is not ready to give up power any time soon. Preliminary figures show that the Pheu Thai (For Thai) Party, a proxy of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, won the most parliamentary seats, making it eligible to form a coalition government.
Ballot counting, however, can be a tricky business. Miraculously, the Election Commission discovered extra ballots, boosting the vote totals for several parties – including, to no one’s surprise, the pro-junta Palang Pracharat (People’s State Power). Having apparently won the highest number of votes, 8.43 million (about 24 percent), Palang Pracharat is also claiming the right to form a government despite winning only 118 seats, 19 fewer than Thaksin’s party. (Thanks to complicated electoral arithmetic, the highest number of popular votes doesn’t necessarily translate into the highest number of parliamentary seats. Hence, the party that won the popular vote is not necessarily the winner of the elections.)
Opposition parties are actively discussing an anti-junta alliance to pave the way for a pro-democracy coalition government whose main aim would be the demilitarization of Thai politics. But the path to this goal is a rocky one. Even if a government can be formed, there are many pitfalls ahead. The constitution empowers the Senate over the House of Representatives, and all Senate members are junta appointees. They would make the life of the anti-junta government extremely difficult.
As a result, it is more likely that Thailand could end up living with a new government run by pro-junta parties, with Prayuth returning as prime minister. Consequently, the military’s influence will remain undiminished. With the election failing to bring about a needed significant transition, Thailand is looking more like Myanmar, where the military has maintained its position of power in politics.
The junta’s almost five-year rule has done nothing but deepen the military’s dominance of the Thai political landscape. Today’s civilian look is deceptive; in fact, it is merely camouflage that cloaks the continued exercise of power by the army.
Meanwhile, the election results unveil a voting pattern that corresponds to the political parties’ power bases. Thai politics has remained largely regional. The north and northeast regions are still loyal to Thaksin, who lives in exile. The south belongs to the Democrat Party, long known to be associated with the royal elites. In Bangkok, most voted for the new Future Forward Party, which presents itself as a choice of the new pro-democracy generation with an aggressive policy some see as verging on anti-monarchism.
The deep regional identity reiterates the continued polarization in Thai politics. The red and yellow divide, crudely translated as the conflicts between the (conservative) urban elites and the (pro-Thaksin) rural residents, has not abated. Political reconciliation will be correspondingly difficult. If the current interregnum lingers on, the existing divisions could stir up violent conflicts. A campaign to protest against the delay of the election results has already been launched. Many have called for the dissolution of the politicized Election Commission. The public anger is palpable.
Can King Maha Vajiralongkorn solve the political impasse?
Last month, another pro-Thaksin party challenged the palace by nominating Princess Ubolratana, an outcast member of the royal family, as the party’s candidate for prime minister. The king almost immediately issued a statement condemning the move; the Constitutional Court quickly followed his lead by dissolving the party, the Thai Raksa Chart. Hence, the king has already directly intervened in politics.
More recently, the king has gone a step further by stripping Thaksin of his royal decorations, highlighting the renewed antagonism between the monarchy and the Thaksin camp. Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the army chief, has backed the king’s side in the feud by describing any democratic movement as a threat to both the nation’s security and the monarchy.
The army and the monarchy depend on each other. Arguably, the junta staged its 2014 coup to take control of the royal succession (rather than leave it up to a Thaksin-led government). The junta has intentionally created the parliamentary interregnum as a delaying tactic to undermine the electoral victory of the Thaksin faction. What they may not realize is that it will also undermine the people’s trust in the electoral process. When that trust is gone, unrest can ensue.