BANGKOK — After he took off his army general’s uniform and put on a prime ministerial suit in 2014, Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha pledged to lead the country back to democracy, although he said it would be “Thai-style democracy.”
Four years on, it appears that “Thai-style democracy” means holding an election that returns Prayuth as leader, whether as prime minister or behind the scenes, even as he suggests he has no such plans.
“Why should I stay on in power for another 20 years?” Prayuth said in a speech at a university in Bangkok last week, referring to a 20-year strategic policymaking plan his junta has adopted. “I am 60 now, and that’s already old. I need to rest.”
A handful of students protested against the junta leader, holding signs calling him a dictator.
Prayuth has repeatedly postponed promised elections, and there is little confidence here that he will make good on his most recent pledge: elections by the end of February 2019.
“Even if there are elections, I won’t be jumping up and down with excitement,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scientist forced into exile because of his criticism of the junta.
This is not least because the junta, technically known as the National Council for Peace and Order, oversaw the introduction of a new constitution that entrenches the military’s power and the influence of unelected judges and other officials. And its 20-year plan would constrain governments elected in the future.
“The military-drafted constitution has been written in such a way that any future government will have extreme difficulty running the country,” Pavin said. “The military will still have the remote control and will be able to operate things from behind the scenes.”
Prayuth portrayed himself as a reluctant leader after he seized power in the wake of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s removal from office in 2014, in the most recent of more than a dozen coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
The junta was needed, he said, to quell conflict between the mostly rural “red shirt” supporters of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra — who was himself ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006 — and the “yellow shirts,” largely comprising the urban middle class and royalists. Yingluck and Thaksin are both in exile.
But Prayuth has clearly come to enjoy power in the past four years, taking to the regions to promote a nationalistic, populist message and whip up support for the junta, and repeatedly signaling that he would be happy to continue serving as prime minister.
The military government probably fears the loss of control once elections take place, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“There’s also the classic and timeless intoxication of power. For those in power without clear changeover mechanisms like term limits and elections, it is just hard to step down,” he said. “And the military government will be afraid of retribution and possible revelations and prosecution of its own wrongdoings.”
Initially, after so much upheaval during the prime ministerial terms of Thaksin and Yingluck, many Thais — especially in the business sector — were relieved at the stability the junta brought. This stability was particularly welcome when the king died in 2016 after seven decades on the throne, a seismic event for Thailand.
But the economy’s growth rate has remained low compared with that of other countries in the region, leading some economists to talk about a “lost decade” for a country that was one of the “Asian tigers” in the 1990s.
“There are all the same problems that existed before the junta took over which have not been solved, like a lack of regional development,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
And Prayuth’s junta has sharply curtailed civil liberties, silencing dissidents, jailing activists and banning peaceful assembly. Prayuth has embraced Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, under which anyone who defames or insults the royal family can be imprisoned for up to 15 years.
Months have turned into years without elections, and the repressed demand for democracy is now palpable here.
A total of 69 existing parties and 98 new parties submitted documents in the month after the junta opened the electoral commission for registrations on March 1. The junta has imposed strict rules on how parties can meet and campaign.
“People want to see an alternative, people want to see the parliament working again,” said Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a political newcomer who has electrified the debate here.
A hugely successful 40-year-old auto parts magnate, Thanathorn launched the progressive Future Forward Party last month, casting it as an alternative to the two main current political forces: the Shinawatras’ party and the military.
“It is proven that military governments with unelected power cannot solve the problems. It’s time for us to say, ‘Enough,’ ” Thanathorn said recently at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. “Once this military government goes back to their barracks, we need to make sure they will not, ever again, seize the power of the elected government in the future.”
Some commentators have described Thanathorn as Thailand’s Emmanuel Macron because he, like the French president, is a young and energetic arrival on the national political scene. He has made enough of an impact to receive death threats.
But Kurlantzick said he doubts that Thanathorn or anyone else will be able to take on the entrenched political machinery. “There is a lot of pent-up demand, but I’m not sure it’s enough to energize a large portion of the electorate,” he said. “I don’t think a new person could emerge and build a grass-roots national movement that quickly.”
Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has signaled that his Democrat Party will put forward proposals based on turning Thailand into a “liberal democracy,” and his 25-year-old nephew has emerged as a fresh face in the party.
“The new generation must work with the old generation, but the party must change, too,” Abhisit said at a party event recently.
But many of the political parties that have registered have pledged loyalty to Prayuth. One, the People’s Reform party, has declared its support for the junta leader’s continuation as prime minister.
“In my view, General Prayuth has all the qualifications, competence and integrity. Up until now, there has been no corruption scandals involving him or his family members, so he’s our best choice,” said party founder Paiboon Nititawan.
But it is too early to tell whether the explosion in the number of political parties in Thailand will lead to a return to democracy, said Thitinan, the Chulalongkorn University political scientist.
“Only the Future Forward Party comprises new faces with clear ideas and policy positions. The rest are recycled and familiar politician types,” he said. “What needs to happen for Thailand to have an electoral future is for more of these new parties with new faces and policy ideas to emerge, not just one.”
But few analysts have confidence that elections will actually take place by February.
“I can’t trust anything Prayuth says. He has already postponed this four times,” said Pavin, who now teaches at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. “The junta can make excuses again.”