Thailand’s First Elections Since Its 2014 Coup

On Sunday, March 24, Thailand will hold its first general election since a military coup overthrew the democratically elected government in 2014. Voting is expected to be free and fair, but the ruling junta has erected guardrails on the electoral system to protect the interests of the country’s traditional elites and the military’s grip on power. While the election will return Thailand to civilian rule and open space for greater political debate in the country, it will not mend a growing political-economic rift in Thailand.

Q1: Why is this election significant for Thailand?

A1: Thai politics have been deeply polarized since the early 2000s when billionaire entrepreneur-turned politician Thaksin Shinawatra galvanized voters in rural provinces, threatening the interests of the traditional Bangkok elites. Thaksin-linked parties have won every Thai election since 2001, but their governments have been removed from power through military or judicial means, including military coups in 2006 and 2014. Since May 2014, a military junta led by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha has led the country. While Thailand has experienced 12 coups since 1932, the longevity of the current post-coup government has been a break from the past. Elections have been postponed five times since the military seized power, and the election held this weekend will be the first election in nearly a decade. It will also be the first election for seven million Thais between the ages of 18 to 25 who were not yet eligible to vote in the last election held in 2011, representing about 14 percent of eligible voters.

Over the past five years, General Prayuth’s government has, at least on the surface, restored calm from the violent street protests that had roiled Bangkok leading to the 2014 coup, and has overseen a smooth royal transition from the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej to the new king Maha Vajiralongkorn. However, the biggest challenge facing General Prayuth and the junta has been devising a system to return Thailand to a form of democratically elected government, while ensuring that the popular majorities that continue to support Thaksin-linked parties are prevented from returning to power.

To this end, Prayuth’s government put forward a new constitution that stipulates a parliamentary system with built-in advantages for the ruling military junta. The new parliament will be comprised of a lower house with 500 seats that are being contested in this election, and an upper house whose 250 members will be appointed by the junta. The opposition would need a majority of 376 votes from both the lower and upper house, which would be highly unlikely given the fact that the upper House seats are hand-picked by the military. In addition, 150 of the 500 lower house members will be “party list” members who will land seats based on the proportion of votes their party receives for their list of candidates. This will enable small parties to gain seats in the lower house and block a landslide victory by any single party to further reduce the chances of an anti-military coalition gaining a large majority.

Q2: Who is running?

As of March 1, 77 parties were registered in the election, and about 10 parties are projected to gain seats in the lower house. Three parties that represent the factions that have been fighting for control over Thai politics over the past two decades are expected to dominate the vote, while one new party holds the potential to shake things up a bit.

Pheu Thai is the Thaksin faction’s newest vehicle and is expected to gain the largest share of votes, drawing from its strength in Thailand’s more rural north and northeast. Pheu Thai advocates for populist policies that will benefit the rural population, and thereby threatens the status quo that benefits the military and bureaucratic elite. Phalang Pracharat is the party aligned with the military junta and has nominated General Prayuth as its candidate for prime minister. Despite many built-in advantages as the ruling government, some polls suggest less than 10 percent support. The Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political party, which most recently led a coalition government from 2008-2011, is a conservative, business-friendly party that enjoys historic support in Bangkok and in the south. However, the party’s urban support is now up for grabs with the advent Future Forward, as described below, with support appearing to be just greater than that for Phalang Pracharat. The Democrats have sought to distinguish themselves from the two main rivals by pledging not to join in a coalition with Pheu Thai and not to support Prayuth as prime minister.

A new political force on the electoral scene is the Future Forward Party, led by 40-year-old billionaire and ultramarathoner Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. He stepped down last year from leading his family’s large auto parts firm to launch a new political party seeking a “third way” that will break the log-jam between Thaksin-linked parties and parties linked to the old-guard Bangkok elites. Thanathorn and his Future Forward party are hugely popular among young Bangkok voters, although it is unclear how much support they will receive beyond urban centers. Their support appears to be in single digits in polls. The party may benefit from the fate of another Thaksin-linked party, the Thai Raksa Chart party, which was dissolved by the Thai Constitutional Court after it nominated the king’s elder sister, Princess Ubolratana, as its candidate for prime minister, a move that was deemed by the court a “hostile act” against the monarchy. Voters who had been planning to support Thai Raksa Chart may throw their weight behind Future Forward Party. And yet, the Prayuth government has also sought to temper the momentum of Thanathorn by charging him with spreading false information, a charge that will be adjudicated just two days after the election, throwing more uncertainty into the mix for voters.

Q3: What is the election about?

A3: In addition to personalities and intrigue, as well as the broader contestation for power between traditional elites in Bangkok and rural populists in the north and northeast, economic policy and promises of economic assistance have been at the center of the campaign.

The anti-junta Pheu Thai party has made criticizing General Prayuth’s economic shortfalls a focus of its campaign, citing lackluster economic growth, unproductive large infrastructure projects, rising income inequality, and has also pledged to raise the minimum wage. Not to be outdone, the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party made a number of campaign promises in recent weeks, including higher welfare payments to elderly people, fixing prices on agricultural products to help farmers, and also raising the minimum wage. It has pledged to continue the economic policies of the Prayuth government, including developing the Eastern Economic Corridor, promoting the digital economy through the Thailand 4.0 initiatives, as well as promising a 6 percent growth rate. The focus on low-income citizens by all of the main parties is unsurprising given that Thailand has recently been ranked the country with the highest inequality in the world, overtaking Russia and India.

Q4: What will be the likely outcome of the election?

A4: Voting will likely be free and fair, but the deck has already been stacked in favor of the military. The Palang Pracharat has enjoyed time to cultivate an electorate, while other parties have had to navigate a controversial ban on political gatherings that was lifted only in December 2018. Prayuth has also used the government purse to announce increasing welfare payments to the elderly and low-income workers in a bid to undercut Thaksin-linked party supporters.

Procedurally, the 250 appointed upper house seats ensure that the military and an increasingly hands-on monarch will control the political process no matter the result.

Yet, regardless of electoral outcomes, the likely result may mean political gridlock or perhaps even instability and turmoil. One likely scenario would be Prime Minister Prayuth elected with as few as 126 votes from the 500 seat lower house and being put over the top with 250 votes by the appointed upper house. An anti-military coalition dominating the lower house could cause gridlock by delaying or blocking legislation and budgets, since these are controlled by the lower house. Moreover, election results will not be officially announced and certified until May 9, during which time the government may intervene on a variety of fronts, such as taking action against Future Forward party leader Thanathorn and possibly disbanding his party, and possibly reimposing bans on political speech, freedom of assembly, internet communication, and other civil liberties. This could lead to rising popular dissatisfaction and potential political instability. If nothing else, the return to electoral politics means that opposition parties will be empowered to lead public debate on a Prayuth-led government’s policies and achievements. A large number of young, first-time voters may feed into a growing sense of frustration and dashed political hopes that could spill into public protest. On the other hand, the military and the new king seem determined to maintain stability and keep calm and will be watching vigilantly to contain any outbreaks of protest.

Q5: What are the implications for the United States?

A5: U.S.-Thailand relations have been rocky since 2006 as a result of U.S. responses to the 2006 and 2014 coups. However, the relationship has been put on a more normal footing since the closing months of the Obama administration, with the resumption of regular senior-level engagements and Prime Minister Prayuth’s visit with President Trump in the White House in October 2017.

The U.S. government will likely consider the election to be free and fair and will recognize the new government to be fully civilian, which will allow for the resumption of the handful of government-government programs that remain circumscribed, such as International Military Education and Training and Foreign Military Financing. However, a great deal of work is needed to get the relationship back on firm footing, with mutual aims better articulated beyond traditional security cooperation.

Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Brian Harding is a fellow and deputy director with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Amy Searight

Brian Harding