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Prayut's quest for legitimacy found wanting

Emboldened Thais make themselves heard in an election derided as rigged

Prayut's quest for legitimacy found wanting

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha arrives at Government House for a cabinet meeting in Bangkok on March 26, two days after the country's general election. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

Published: April 01, 2019 04:33 AM GMT

Updated: April 01, 2019 09:14 AM GMT

Thailand’s election has lived up to expectations. The military entrenched its powers and General Prayut Chan-o-cha will probably become the next prime minister despite claims from opposition parties that they have enough seats to form a coalition government.

Should Prayut take the top job, it will still prove a hollow victory for a junta that sought political legitimacy but could only muster about 8.43 million of the popular vote after grossly overrating its chances.

Old foes, the former premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, remained a persistent thorn from exile. Their Pheu Thai party, which had won every election since 2001, again scored the most seats, while the emergence of fresh political voices such as Future Forward wrong-footed Prayut and his political strategists.

That and an electorate, which stepped out of the junta’s shadow for the first time in five years, combined to make this a memorable election, regardless of the results and allegations of fraud.

The numbers

For the junta, the March election was a dismal performance by any democratic standards, and shocking given the odds were stacked in their favor by a constitution that bares striking similarities with the charter that gave overarching powers to the military in Myanmar.

In Thailand, the next prime minister will be elected from a joint sitting of parliament but 250 members of the Senate will all be appointed by the military, giving Prayut a substantial head start over his rivals.

This ballot was all about filling 500 seats in the House of Representatives — 350 directly elected with the remaining 150 to be allocated according to a party’s popularity.

Of the 350 directly elected seats, preliminary tallies indicate Phalang Pracharat — widely viewed as a proxy party for continued military rule — won 97, meaning Prayut is 29 seats shy of securing the top job in Thailand’s next government, assuming he has the backing of the 250 senators.

Potential alliances are also in the offing. The Democrat Party, which did poorly with only 33 seats, and the Bhumjaithai Party, which has at least 39 seats, are potential suitors, and that’s not taking into account the 150 seats yet to be allocated.

Pheu Thai trailed slightly in the popular vote with 7.92 million but outperformed at constituency level and is expected to pick up 137 seats. The perceived Thaksin supporting party and the “democratic front” insist they have the numbers to form a government.

That would have to include a coalition with the political rock stars of this election, Future Forward, the party of the youthful auto-parts billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, which is expected to win 30 constituency seats and 57 party list seats. But it’s a strategy that ignores the constitutional realities of the military-held Senate.

The parade

Thailand’s future is now no less clear than when Prayut organized the 2014 coup — the 13th in modern times — that gave Yingluck her marching orders.

It did end a nasty era of violent street protests and color-coded politics that became synonymous with her brother’s legacy but failed to undermine the enormous popularity Thaksin still commands more than 12 years after his own government was toppled by the military.

And under Prayut the economy has stagnated, draconian laws curtailing civil liberties have been enforced and political life ground to halt with the Shinawatras absent, leaving a political vacuum that was eagerly filled by vibrant youth that came of age at this poll.

On parade was an eclectic mix of candidates, personality politics and single-issue platforms. Transexuals, sports stars and a beauty queen stood as candidates, offering a fresh look and a stark contrast to the establishment faces of Thailand’s elite.

Future Forward even enlisted Taopiphop Limjittrakorn. Once arrested for bottling his own homemade beer, he personified the antithesis of military drabness.

On the eve of the election, King Maha Vajiralongkorn stressed, as his much loved father did, the need to "promote good people to govern the country and to prevent bad people from taking power and creating chaos."

His message recalled comments from the late Bhumibol Adulyadej, made in 1969. He did not endorse any of the candidates and for a monarch who reigns but does not rule he showed genuine concern for his voting public and what might happen next.

The future

Across Southeast Asia a demographic change has taken place as noted by the Thai historian Chris Baker, who reminded a recent gathering at the Foreign Correspondents' Club that Thailand’s military leaders were raised during the Cold War, an era that molded their thinking.

“The new generation grew up in a very different world and they think of themselves much more as being modern and cosmopolitan,” he said, adding voters below the age of 40 see themselves as part “of a kind of new Thailand.”

It’s a similar story in Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia where elected officials are struggling to cope with the demands of tech-savvy millennials while maintaining the old order.

This was all too obvious in Thailand where Future Forward, with just one year as a political outfit behind it, secured its political fortunes while the leader of the Democrats, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, resigned over his party’s abysmal performance.

Adding grist to the allegations of electoral fraud were those who apparently didn’t vote. Of the 52 million registered Thai voters, about 17 million defied expectations and did not turn out, more than double the total number of votes cast for Prayut and his Phalang Pracharat.

Millions of ballots were ruined and in one province the number of spoilt votes was double the number of registered voters. Postal votes failed to arrive on time and with investigations underway the election commission has declined to formally declare the number seats each party had won.

The electorate will have to wait until May 9, after the king’s coronation, to hear the final result.

Thailand’s election — derided by The Economist as “ineptly rigged” — was hardly a mandate for a junta demanding legitimacy in a country desperate for political stability and a democratic voice.

Instead, the military and Prayut scored themselves a botched recipe that no one wanted and a potential threat that might return Thailand to its volatile past when politics was polarized and violent protests were not uncommon.

Luke Hunt is a senior writer with ucanews.com. Twitter: @lukeanthonyhunt

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