Election preview: Thailand

Two of the biggest elections for the year are being held on the same day this Sunday. Today we’ll look at Thailand; tomorrow, Turkey.

Thailand will vote in its second general election since the military takeover of 2014. The government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha is torn, as military governments often are, between the desire to burnish its democratic credentials and the desire to hold on to power. There’s ample evidence that the two are ultimately incompatible.

The last election, four years ago, saw the military’s vehicle, Palang Pracharath, top the poll with 23.3% of the vote and 116 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives. Its main rival, Pheu Thai – loyal to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – was close behind with 21.9% and actually won more seats, 136. A strong third was Future Forward, also anti-junta and willing to partner with Pheu Thai, with 17.3% and 81 seats.

The military’s opponents therefore seemed to be well on the way to a parliamentary majority, and indeed a six-party alliance led by Pheu Thai announced an agreement to that effect, claiming a total of 253 seats. But after tweaking the allocation of seats in its favor the government was able to put together its own coalition, relying on the misnamed Democrat Party (10.9% and 53 seats) and Bhumjaithai, a breakaway from Pheu Thai (10.3% and 51 seats), plus a collection of small parties.

The Senate, with 250 military appointees, also had a voice in the appointment of the prime minister, so Prayut was confirmed in office. He is still there, although there was a short gap last year when the constitutional court suspended him while it considered the applicability of term limits – eventually ruling that the eight-year limit ran from 2017, when the new constitution was adopted, not from 2014 when he seized power.

Palang Pracharath, however, is no longer in Prayut’s and the military’s corner; its leader, Prawit Wongsuwan, has pursued a rapprochement with Pheu Thai and Prayut has instead become the leader of a new party, the United Thai Nation Party. The government has also, in time-honored fashion, tried to improve its chances by fiddling with the electoral system: there are now to be 400 single-member districts, elected by first-past-the-post (on government-drawn boundaries), plus 100 proportional seats that are just additional to the others rather than compensating for disproportionality.

It’s not clear whether any of this will help the military. Opinion polls show Pheu Thai, now led by Paethongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s daughter, and Move Forward, a new incarnation of Future Forward, winning a large majority of the vote between them, with United Thai Nation a distant third. As long as the opposition parties continue to co-operate they should be in a position to dictate terms to the military – unless the latter chooses to again step outside the bounds of the constitution.

That is certainly possible, but the Thai establishment is not what it once was. The falling out between Prayut and Prawit is one symptom of a general loss of confidence and unanimity. King Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded his much-respected father in 2016, was the focus of unprecedented protests during 2020-21, when he spent much of the period of the Covid pandemic secluded in Bavaria. The government’s heavy-handed repression of dissent has merely exposed the fragility of its support.

Common sense would dictate that the military needs to split the alliance against it and come to some sort of arrangement with either Pheu Thai or Move Forward. Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn were once thought to be close; compromise between their respective forces should not be impossible. But generals who meddle in politics often, notoriously, fail to abide by the rules of common sense.


PS: Jonathan Head at the BBC now has a preview that is well worth a read.


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