Democracy in doubt: Poser over Thai polls raises questions on junta road map
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Democracy in doubt: Poser over Thai polls raises questions on junta road map

STAKEHOLDERS in Thailand’s political landscape are anticipating more delays to the promised restoration of democratic governance via this year’s planned elections, with critics casting doubt over the junta-led administration’s sincerity in implementing its so-called road map to “true democracy”.

A member of the military government’s national legislative assembly (NLA) on Monday said the elections would likely be delayed to March or April next year due to “intricacies involved in drafting election laws”.

On Wednesday, however, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan insisted that the highly-anticipated electoral contest will proceed as planned this year. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha asserted the same when he dismissed claims of a likely delay.

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Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who is also Defense Minister. Pic: AP.

The contest is seen as crucial to restore civilian rule in the kingdom as well as stability, over two years after the military’s overthrow of the last elected government in 2014. It will also be the first election under the new junta-backed constitution that was approved last year, and that critics have warned will ensure military oversight of elected governments.

But despite repeated assurances from junta leaders, doubts linger.

Earlier this week, a member of ousted Premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party urged Prayuth to clarify the military junta’s election plans, and asked if its leaders were testing waters in an attempt to cling to power, The Nation reported.

Acting deputy spokesman of Pheu Thai, Anusorn Iamsa-ard, claimed the military was gauging public sentiment and working systematically to justify junta rule.

“They started with the NLA’s move, then followed [that] with the astrologer’s prophecy that the road map will be extended. All this despite the fact that the political parties have remained calm and not caused any trouble,” he said.

“The purpose of this movement is nothing but for the junta to stay on in power.”

To any observer of Thai politics, the criticism would not seem entirely misplaced.

Prayuth’s interim government has, after all, changed its mind several times about when to hold the polls. It first promised to organise elections in 2015 but then shifted the goalpost numerous times until 2017.

As such, as long as there remains no firm date set for the polls, the junta will likely continue to earn more brickbats than plaudits from detractors, stoking tensions in an already troubled kingdom.

Politics in Thailand: A brief overview

Since the early 2000s, Thailand’s political landscape has been fraught with power struggles and upheavals involving parties linked to Yingluck’s brother and business tycoon Thaksin, who, prior to his sister, had led the populist Pheu Thai Party and served as prime minister between 2001 and 2006.

Amid the unrest, Thaksin-linked parties won the kingdom’s last three elections in 2001, 2007 and 2011, banking on majority support from those at the rural and grassroots level. But each time the parties won against their urban middle-class and royalist-backed traditional adversary — the Democrat Party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva — they were overruled by military coups (Thailand has experienced 12 overthrows since 1932).

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Thailand’s former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Pic: AP.

The latest coup in May 2014 was staged by the Prayuth-led army to restore order and enact political reforms, after months of unrest that followed Yingluck’s re-election to government earlier in the year.

The results of that contest, however, had been declared null and void by the Constitutional Court and fresh polls were initially set for July but this was called off after the coup.

The coup also led to Yingluck’s impeachment in January the following year, over a slew of allegations — including dereliction of duty and failure to stop corruption said to be linked to a controversial rice subsidy scheme. The scheme was a keystone policy of Yingluck’s administration and was said to have cost over a billion dollars in taxpayer funds.

After the coup and Yingluck’s subsequent removal from office, Prayuth’s interim government promised to hold elections in 2015. However, the junta pushed the polling date back several times, only pledging to hold it in mid-2017 after the country’s Sept 2016 vote on the draft charter that paved way to the country’s new constitution.

In the draft charter referendum, over 60 percent of votes cast were in favour of the military government-backed constitution. The validity of that support was questioned by critics, however, as total voter turnout was a mere 55 percent of 50.5 million eligible voters.

Central to the debate on the then-proposed constitution was that it provided the junta powers to appoint all of 250 senators of the upper house. The senators will remain in position for the first five years and have a say in the next prime minister’s selection, although the post need not be occupied by an elected parliamentarian.

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Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Pic: AP.

The junta was also granted authority pending the formation of a new government on the pretext of ensuring stability during the transitional period.

At the time of this publication, the country is already more than halfway through the military government’s “6-4-6-4” road map to democracy, which, according to Tokyo-based online international news magazine The Diplomat, posits six months to draft a new constitution, four months to hold a referendum on it, six months to draft organic laws to support the constitution and four months to campaign ahead of an election meant to restore democracy.

Critics still doubt the junta’s willingness to return to civilian rule, but Prawit’s assurance this week that elections will proceed this year is an indication that the road map is indeed on track.

Predictions: Winners and losers

In the event of an election, it is not likely the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties – the country’s largest political platforms – would be able to win a majority to go on and single-handedly form a government.

Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, believes this is because most senate members will be appointed by the junta, according to local news site Khaosod English.

She said they could, however, take the federal government if the decade-long rivals form a coalition, which is, of course, highly unlikely.

Mid-sized political parties and their leaders, she added, are among the biggest beneficiaries of the proposed laws to support the referendum passed last August. They would be well-positioned under the new regulations to forge an alliance with the junta-appointed senate, while big and small parties are bound to lose out.

With the elections slated to take place this year, the scholar said Thailand would essentially return to a “guided democracy”, with the polls having little impact on governance.

The smaller parties will be at a disadvantage as a political party must obtain 5,000 members in its first year and attain at least 20,000 members within four years, according to the proposed law.

A party must also establish branches in all the four regions in the country while its members have to pay at least THB100 (US$2.72) in membership fees per annum or THB2,000 (US$55.80) for lifetime membership.

Not fielding any candidates for two consecutive elections would also lead to automatic dissolution of the party. Such restrictions, Siripan said, makes it difficult to form new, small parties and renders chances of survival slim.

She said, according to Khaosod:

“The prospect is that small parties are being discriminated against as a result. The requirement for the setting up of regional branches is costly.”

Siripan added that paying THB100 for annual membership fees will be difficult for those already struggling to make ends meet and that ultimately, this would make it difficult for a small political party to attract members.

“The biggest beneficiaries are the well-oiled medium-size parties with good connections that can afford to buy politicians,” she said.

Status quo despite road map

Considering these factors, it is no wonder doubt continues to loom large over the promised changes to Thailand’s political landscape, even as the junta marches ahead to the grand finale of its road map to democracy.

According to The Nation, critics believe that even if some changes are to come, it would not be in 2017. The article said observers have suggested a possibility that mainstream politics will remain trapped in “the whirlpool of organic-law writing for at least 10 more months”.

Satithorn Thananithichot, a researcher at the King Prajadhipok’s Institute, pointed out that although the Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) introduced drafts of the organic laws on political parties and the Election Commission (EC) last year, they would not be finalised until approved by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).

And heated debates can be expected when they are tabled at the assembly, he added.

Citing the EC law amendments as one example, Satithorn said it will be scrutinised by both the commissioners and the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), as the CDC hardly satisfied their demands.

Taking another view, Nikorn Chamnong, a key member of the Chart Thai Pattana Party and a member of the NRSA, said lawmakers would unlikely make controversial changes to the EC or political party laws, although the senate law would be subject to a fierce debate.

“Because the senate is equivalent to the NLA, the lawmakers are inevitably intertwined with the issue. So, we can expect criticism both in and outside the chamber,” he said.

Nikorn said, however, that the election could be held next year as the timetable for the laws to be passed could be tight.

“There are two determining milestones this year – one at the beginning and the other at the end – the promulgation of the new constitution and the election.

“If the election can’t take place, at least the government should be clear about the date when it will. Otherwise, it will face heavy criticism.”

Another political critic Sukhum Nualsakul echoed the sentiments of another election delay which was reflective of the past couple of years.

Sukhum said despite calls by politicians to relax controls on political activity, the Thai public were “satisfied” with the status quo. He said:

“But by status quo, I don’t mean people are happy with the National Council for Peace and Order per se. I mean they are content with this ostensible peace and order. That partly justifies to the government to keep a tight grip.”