Thai election unlikely to ease military's tight grip

After manipulating the constitution and handpicking senators, the junta has stacked the deck
Thai election unlikely to ease military's tight grip

A Phalang Pracharat party supporter displays an electoral placard of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha during a campaign rally at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on Feb. 10. (Photo by Panumas Sanguanwon/AFP)

Five years after Thailand’s military seized power in a coup from an elected government — for the umpteenth time in the country’s turbulent modern history — Thais are heading to the polls again on March 24.

Not that the outcome will likely matter much.

The military-appointed drafters of the country’s constitution, which was passed in 2017 as the 20th such document in less than a century, arrogates an oversized role to unelected officials.

The 250 senators of the upper house will all be handpicked by the military, while the 500 representatives in the lower house will be elected by voters. The new prime minister will be selected by both houses.

This arrangement makes it likely that Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, the head of the junta that toppled former PM Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, will be able to retain his office.

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Yet even if a landslide at the polls were to sweep a civilian into power, the generals will still have a large say in how the country is run. Constitutional checks will allow the military to exercise veto power over policies initiated by a new government, which will also be obligated by law to follow the military’s “20-year national strategy.”

“These manipulated maneuvers are built into the constitution with the aim of maintaining military lordship over civilian leaders," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientists at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, recently told an international media outlet.

Nor is yet another coup off the cards. The Royal Thai Army’s current chief, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, has refused to rule out another military takeover, telling reporters late last year that in the case of renewed street protests, the army might have to step in again.

It was street protests by right-wing anti-government demonstrators in 2014 that served as a pretext for the army to unseat Yingluck, Thailand’s first-ever female prime minister, in order to “pacify” the country. She has since fled Thailand to escape being jailed over irregularities during a government-sponsored subsidy scheme aimed at helping impoverished rice farmers.    

If Apirat does decide to help stage another coup one day, he will be following in the footsteps of his late father, Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, who in 1991 as then head of the army deposed a civilian government that had been elected after more than a decade-long rule by the military and its proxies.

Endless merry-go-round

Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon turned politician, too was unseated in a coup, in 2006. Thaksin, who remains widely popular and whose parties have won every single democratically held election in this new century, has likewise fled Thailand into self-imposed exile abroad. He had also done so to avoid being jailed over charges of corruption.  

And so it is in Thailand: elections are followed by military takeovers, with one coup every four years or so on average.

This endless merry-go-round has kept the country in permanent suspended animation politically. Over the decades, coups by the military against civilian governments have been predicated on the same mantra-like justification: the army needed to save the country from venal, corrupt and self-serving politicians.

To be sure, Thai politicians aren’t paragons of selfless altruism. Yet nor are Thai army generals, judged by the available evidence. Both Prayut’s deputy, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, and his brother, Preecha Chan-o-cha, have been credibly accused of corruption in recent years. Neither has been charged nor even properly investigated over claims they owned assets possibly acquired through dubious means.

Since seizing power in 2014, the junta has increased the military’s budget incrementally year after year to the current US$7 billion. Another US$3 billion has been earmarked for internal security, even as budgets for education and health care remain well below desirable levels.

The coup makers and their allies among the Bangkok elites invariably insist that Western-style democracy isn’t possible in Thailand because of the venality of politicians and the gullibility of voters, especially in rural areas.

That argument does hold some water. A deeply entrenched patronage system across the country has ensured that phuu yai, or “big men,” can dominate local politics. Yet the dominance of these big men has been more of a symptom of Thai political dysfunction than its main cause.

A pervasive culture of impunity and double standards has prevented Thai political institutions from truly maturing beyond a rudimentary stage. The same applies to jurisprudence. The rich and powerful can get away with murder (often literally), while the poor and disenfranchised lack real rights and have little say in anything.

Thailand is, according to the investment bank Credit Suisse, the world’s most economically unequal society, where the richest 1 percent own 66.9 percent of the country’s wealth. And all that wealth in the hands of a few translates into vastly outsized political influence at the expense of the many.

The country’s century-long and painfully slow democratization has remained a stop-and-start process largely because of such ingrained inequalities. Extrajudicial rights are tacitly guaranteed to a select few who can even tear up a constitution (the supreme law of the land) at will without any legal or political consequences. They can then write a new constitution with whole new rules — and keep on repeating the process if they so wish.

Come March 24, millions of Thais will be exercising their “constitutional” right to vote in the first parliamentary election since the last one in 2011 when Yingluck was elected prime minister. Whether their votes will really count is another matter.

The author is an experienced journalist and long-time resident of Thailand who has been following local politics closely.

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