Thailand's prospects for 2017 and beyond

Thailand's prospects for 2017 and beyond

Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, where many historic confrontations have taken place. (File photo)
Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, where many historic confrontations have taken place. (File photo)

Thailand and the world at large are concurrently going through a rut that comes with the transitional end of any long era. For the world, this period is known as the postwar liberal order that was constructed and led by the United States in the aftermath of World War II. As constituent states in the international system have benefited immensely and risen to challenge and rival traditional US power and prestige, Washington appears intent on shirking its global leadership role. The unfolding result is a fluid and precarious global canvass, underpinned by tectonic power shifts and manoeuvres and geopolitical tensions and volatility -- a subject which warrants a separate analysis.

For Thailand, the period that has run its course stems from King Bhumibol Adulyadej's long and remarkable reign that shaped the country's socio-political setting and economic development over 70 years. The late monarch's passing necessarily entails a reset of the Thai socio-political setting, ushering in a new reign. The constituent actors of the new reign, in turn, have to come to terms and agree on a new modus vivendi as to how Thailand should function and operate. This process cannot be done overnight. It requires a spirit of mutual accommodation and compromise for the country's longer-term interests and will be ultimately answerable to popular opinion.

Navigating out of Thailand's funk means a return to the political normalcy of having government from popular rule with public accountability. More often than not, Thailand is not a straightforward place. It has had a government from a military coup that the vast majority of Thai people -- as measured by the Aug 7 charter referendum which passed by a convincing margin with a large turnout, for example -- have more or less accepted during their once-in-a-lifetime royal transition. As the coup-makers under the National Council for Peace and Order have successfully facilitated the royal transition into the new reign, more questions will focus on a return to "open politics" and elected representation.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

So the question in Thailand -- and there are parallels for the global system -- is not what was important in 2016 or will be significant in 2017, but how the rest of this decade into the next will define the first half of the 21st century. We are in the midst of a roughly two-decades-long transformation that will determine how the country will be for the subsequent three decades.

For 15 years after Thailand's political change from absolutism to constitutionalism in 1932, for example, Thai politics was topsy-turvy and swung wildly until King Bhumibol's reign got under way and became consolidated in the 1950s-70s. Thai politics was never smooth thereafter but it spawned a political order that people accepted, embraced or became accustomed to.

This "new normal" of political settlement in Thailand is still some distance away. After 12 years of topsy-turvy polarisation and conflict, Thailand is still in the thick of the woods, nowhere near being out of it for good. To make progress, the wider audience has looked to the election roadmap as a guide to a lasting new normal under democratic conditions. But a better way to arrive at the election date and what comes after is to look at the royal transition and its aftermath.

An election is unlikely until there is a proper royal cremation that befits the glorious era of the late monarch. The earliest date would be roughly one year after his passing on Oct 13 but this final goodbye by the Thai people will probably take place after the rainy season in late November or December at the earliest, putting the polls in early to mid-2018.

The cremation of King Bhumibol may be viewed in conjunction with the coronation of His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn. The circumstances may be more conducive to have the coronation under an elected government as myriad heads of state and royalties from around the world would be invited. A coup-appointed government backed by a military junta may not be the right kind of host for such a prestigious event.

This sequence assumes the draft constitution will come into effect in February 2017 as planned and will not need to be drafted again in view of time-consuming enabling laws that would have to be in place before polls. It is a big assumption because the new reign would have to go along with a military-dominant constitution written by a small military-appointed committee with military objectives to supervise Thai electoral politics, featuring a 33% quota of the legislature reserved for military personnel and proxies.

All things being equal, the election would take place around the second quarter of 2018, followed by the coronation thereafter. Delaying the election may be tantamount to delaying the coronation. Yet no poll can be expected until a fit and proper cremation transpires.

The longer polls are put off, the more electoral forces, particular the main Pheu Thai and Democrat parties and their party machines, will agitate. The natural beneficiaries of a later-rather-than-sooner election are the members of the National Legislative Assembly, the Constitution Drafting Committee, the National Reform Steering Committee, and members and advisors of the cabinet and the NCPO, who all earn executive-level monthly salaries (sometimes multiplied by their additional public sector roles), with many perquisites and little accountability.

In case of unexpected poll delays, one caveat would be the civilianisation of the military government, with a civilian leader at the helm, which may engender sufficient international legitimacy and credibility to move ahead with the coronation.

So there will be plenty of ifs and buts in Thai politics in 2017. Certainly, socio-political tensions will build in the second half of the year as poll expectations heighten and the military government loses more of its lustre. How Thailand's popular rule is shaped and formed under the new reign and vice versa is what to keep an eye on for what the country will be like in the 2020s.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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