No exit from our democratic future
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No exit from our democratic future


A woman walks past campaign posters in Bangkok as the nation prepares for the general election on May 14. (Photo: Reuters)
A woman walks past campaign posters in Bangkok as the nation prepares for the general election on May 14. (Photo: Reuters)

As Thailand's much-anticipated poll on May 14 heads into its homestretch, several clear trends and patterns are emerging to suggest that democratisation is making an inexorable comeback in this country, with positive implications for Southeast Asia and beyond. The immediate road ahead in Thai politics will likely still be bumpy, potentially marked by more judicial interventions and electoral manipulation, or even another military takeover, to thwart the people's choices at the poll. But eventually, pro-democracy forces backed by the Thai people's demand for change will come back time and again until there is a rebalanced, representative and reworked constitutional order in place.

It's hard to believe that in the late 1990s Thailand was internationally extolled as the leading light of democratisation in the developing world, when it transitioned from military-authoritarianism towards what looked like a democratic consolidation. But then it all became topsy-turvy. The electoral rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party machine from 2001 ironically undermined democratic values and hallmarks, from checks and balances and basic freedoms to the transparency and accountability of the government. The military coups in 2006 and 2014, along with the repeated judicial dissolutions of Thaksin's political parties and elected politicians, including his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, shaped political outcomes and reversed and weakened democratic institutions immeasurably.

Yet representative vehicles of the vast majority of Thailand's electorate have proved resilient and resurgent. Based on poll results and campaign dynamics on the ground, pro-military political parties in the incumbent coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, are faring much less favourably than the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) and Move Forward Party (MFP) of the opposition. The strengthening of these two parties -- the top two contenders in the pre-election polls -- is counterintuitive and unexpected.

The PTP was dissolved twice under earlier banners in 2007 and 2008. Yet it kept coming back to win elections in 2011 and 2019. It is on course to romp to victory again by a large margin in the upcoming poll. The fact that voters keep opting for Pheu Thai against the backdrop of military and judicial coups and two military-inspired constitutions in 2007 and 2017 means the Thai people do not want to vote pro-military parties into office.

The MFP's case is even more remarkable. It emerged from nowhere to become the third-largest winner under the Future Forward Party in 2019, with 81 of the 500-member lower House. Its progressive agenda to reform traditional centres of power, particularly the military and monarchy, paved the way for its summary dissolution in February 2020. Some of its MPs were then poached and enticed to join pro-military parties, leaving the newly regrouped MFP with a little over half of its original parliamentary strength.

When a major party like the MFP and those under Thaksin is dissolved, it is a major blow because the party structure, committees, policy plans and programmes, and all of its institutional inner workings, fall into disarray. Yet it has happened. The MFP is arguably stronger today than its former vehicle under Future Forward. When Future Forward was dissolved, its key leaders were also banned from running for office for ten years, but they invoked their constitutional rights to form what is called the Progressive Movement. The MFP works for a better political future through constitutional means, the parliamentary system, and the electoral arena. The Progressive Movement works with ordinary people in the streets and provinces to reimagine Thailand's future.

The MFP thus represents a game-changer in Thai politics. Its call for the structural reform of Thailand's military, monarchy, economy, and overall governance has never been a campaign issue that is so salient and resonant as we are seeing today. Without the MFP, the PTP would be leading the polls, and it would merely be a deja vu of another Thaksin-aligned political party winning the vote, similar to the 2011 election that launched Yingluck to the premiership.

The MFP is the reason why this election is unlike any other in the past. It's not just about Thaksin coming up with populist policies and trying to win hearts and minds, thereby posing a threat to his establishment opponents who want to keep the Thai masses on their side. The MFP is moving Thai politics to the next frontier, an inevitable reckoning that was bound to come and challenge traditional institutions to agree to a more inclusive, fair, and accountable political future under a new constitutional order.

In view of the MFP's rise, the PTP risks being a party of the past, even though just two decades ago, it was the party of the future in the face of run-of-the-mill and status-quo parties from the 1980s and 90s. At this time, the MFP is considered a party of the left, whereas the PTP is of the centre-left, with the posture and position on the military-monarchy axis being the fault line of the spectrum. Gen Prayut's United Thai Nation Party is on the right, with the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party at centre-right along with the Bhumjaithai and Democrat parties.

At the encouraging rate of political parties' development in Thailand, if and when the MFP, or its successor parties, become the centre-left while the PTP takes its place at centre-right, with a reformed military and monarchy firmly constitutionalised under a new charter drafted not by a military-appointed committee but by people's representatives, Thailand will hit another phase of democratic consolidation.

The spectre of fundamental reform and the adjustment of traditional institutions, underpinned by both Pheu Thai's and the MFP's popularity and poll prospects, means democratisation in Thailand was down but never out. Now democratisation is making a comeback at the expense of military-authoritarianism.

To be sure, we will likely see Thai politics get murkier and more contentious, with mounting risks of subversive manoeuvres as seen in the recent past, but the eventual way forward appears not in doubt because the majority of Thai voters will keep showing the same preferences to see the back of military-authoritarianism and the reform of institutions from the old order that used to call the shots.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow 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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