Thailand's year of hunting normality

Protesters gather at the Ratchaprasong intersection on Tuesday in their second demonstration of the week against postponement of the general election. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

Three related events that will shape Thailand's path this year and beyond are evidently the coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, the much-anticipated election, and the once-a-decade rotational chairmanship of Asean.

The timing and duration of the coronation are set for May 4-6, most likely with at least two weeks on either side of this auspicious three-day window reserved for final preparations and nationwide celebrations, whereas Thailand's Asean chair is now under way until it is handed over to Vietnam in November-December after the 10-member organisation's summit season.

Thailand's election and democratic transition, however, has been delayed yet again for the sixth time in nearly five years of military government. An election date that many thought would be Feb 24 has now gone into limbo without clarity.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

The Election Commission (EC) and the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha have been going back and forth about whose onus it is to set an election date. At issue is the potential overlap between election proceedings and coronation preparations and celebrations.

The constitution that was drafted by a junta-appointed committee mandates 150 days for the electoral process to be completed with the announcement of final results, while the organic law on the election of MPs appears to suggest the same stretch of days for the election to take place. Neither side, nor the Constitutional Court, seems willing to interpret this discrepancy once and for all.

As a result, it is eerily quiet on the election front in bustling Bangkok. Most want to know the election date but no one really knows and few in authority are pressing the issue. The passage of time seems to be the real arbiter and messenger.

This is an extraordinary patch in Thailand's political trajectory in search of a new normality with a long-awaited election under a new reign. How this sequence and its manifestations unfold will have much to say about how Thailand's politics and society as well as its Asean chairmanship will fare in the months ahead.

In fact, the election should already have taken place months ago because Gen Prayut's incumbent government has set up built-in constitutional and administrative advantages against civilian-led political parties. The 2017 constitution allows the junta to practically handpick the 250-member Senate, the appointed upper house which is poised to function as the largest pro-military bloc in the 750-strong bicameral legislature.

The 500 elected members of parliament are inversely grouped into 350 constituency and 150 party-list representatives through a mixed-member apportionment, which intends to preclude the rise of large dominant parties, such as Pheu Thai and its two predecessors that are aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, two elected prime ministers who were overthrown by the military in 2006 and 2014. The more a party garners constituency winners, the fewer it will receive from the 150 party-list seats, as votes for losing constituency candidates will be counted and distributed among their parties. Unsurprisingly, several dozen new and smaller parties have sprung up to capture these party-list seats. Pheu Thai, for example, has spawned smaller proxies in the Thai Raksa Chart and Pheu Tham parties.

The rules are thus stacked in favour of the junta and for Gen Prayut to return as premier after the poll. This tailored constitution is intent on maintaining military supervision of Thai politics over the long term, particularly through the promulgation of a junta-designed "20-year national strategy", which future elected governments must adhere to by law. In addition, key state agencies, such as the EC and the National Anti-Corruption Commission, have been filled by junta loyalists. These advantages should have emboldened and enticed the incumbent prime minister to stage and contest the election for certain victory, but such is not the case.

Gen Prayut has overseen and ensured that the necessary mechanics have been put in motion. The junta has its own political party, namely Palang Pracharath, whose name is identical to the government's populist policy programme in favour of the rural electorate. Palang Pracharath is led by four sitting ministers who remain in cabinet despite their electoral ambitions. As it entices veteran MPs from other parties, Palang Pracharath has benefited directly from government largesse and a flurry of pork-barrel hand-outs and freebies in upcountry provinces. Yet its polling numbers are reportedly unimpressive.

But even with state power and coffers and absolute power known as "Section 44" at his disposal, Gen Prayut may not have enough Palang Pracharath MPs to return him to power without help from the swing parties, such as Bhumjaithai, Chartthaipattana, and especially the Democrats.

These electoral prospects will not lead to political clarity for Thailand. They only offer a change of government from junta rule to elected representation. Pro-military parties may scrape enough MP numbers to return Gen Prayut to power but he will have a difficult time governing, as legislation will be led by the lower house, with the Senate playing a more nominal role.

Civil-military relations are likely to go the other way after the election. As civilian leaders and elected representatives regain power, the junta and its loyalists and supporters will be on the back foot. In the process, Thailand will likely spend the next two years trying to repair the misrule and manipulation from the junta era. In the near term, its performance as Asean Chair will likely not be at full steam because of its contentious domestic politics.

The election and coronation this year broadly represent Thailand's search for a new political order that accommodates constitutional monarchy and fledgling democracy in a new moving mix away from past decades during the Cold War when bottom-up aspirations for popular rule and basic rights and freedoms were subsumed and suppressed under state security. Over the next two years, Thailand could end up again in a cycle of conflict and confrontation or it could break out into relative political stability if the old order and new players in Thai politics are willing to find a compromise. The stakes are so high that we all have a vested interest to call for and promote the latter scenario.

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