Charter a straitjacket on democracy
ABROAD AT HOME
published : 19 May 2023 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
The military-appointed constitution drafting committee that was set up after the coup in 2014 surely knew what it was doing. It crafted a charter in 2017 that now acts as a straitjacket on Thailand's democratic outcome from the general election last Sunday.
The fundamental problem in the wake of the election is that the incumbent power holders have embedded constitutional rules to prevent the Thai people from having the final say on how their country should be governed. This incongruence between what the majority of the electorate wants and what the power wielders behind the scenes will not allow is likely to lead to severe political headwinds in the coming weeks.
In most other countries, the opposition parties that won the election would already be transitioning into a new government by now, because they together garnered more than 60% of the votes. After the results of Australia's election in May 2022 were known, for example, the leader of the winning party immediately took up the premiership and flew to Japan within hours to attend the summit of "Quad" countries, including India, Japan, and the United States.
In Thailand, it's not so straightforward. Recent Thai elections have functioned more like a nomination process where people's votes are necessary but not sufficient to form a government. There is a post-poll lull of up to three months where election results are vetted and considered by referee agencies that supervise political parties and politicians, led by the Election Commission, the Constitutional Court, and the National Anti-Corruption Commission. In concert, these three agencies have dissolved a string of major political parties and disqualified dozens of elected representatives in recent years.
While voters can choose their politicians, parties and the assortment of policies presented, the final outcome is shaped and determined by these powerful agencies, whose current members came to office during the military era. Since April 2006, these agencies have become more politically assertive in determining outcomes, dissolving parties in 2007 and 2008 and issuing a series of other interventionist rulings thereafter.
In 2011, they had to put up with the big victory -- 265 out of 500 lower house seats -- of the Pheu Thai Party, aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra and under the leadership of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra at the time. But as soon as the Yingluck government made a major misstep by introducing an amnesty bill to clear criminal wrongdoings stemming from political polarisation since 2006, including Thaksin's, these agencies took decisive moves that ousted the then-prime minister.
The coup in 2014 further empowered these agencies and set up additional mechanisms to ensure that political outcomes can be checked and shaped by conservative forces. Chief among these was the decision to let the military junta appoint one-third of parliament, a 250-member Senate which could vote for the prime minister. This way, pro-military parties can keep pro-democracy parties at bay with the help of the Senate and the referee agencies. They demonstrated this power by disbanding the Future Forward Party and banning its leader in 2020.
Thai politics is now at a similarly precarious juncture. The opposition parties have gained substantial strength from the recent poll at the expense of pro-military parties. As the successor to the FFP, the MFP has stunned the electoral field by becoming the biggest winner in the poll, securing 152 seats out of 500, including a virtual sweep of Bangkok, securing 32 seats of 33. With Pheu Thai's 141 seats, the two parties account for 58% of all incoming MPs. To be sure, MFP and Pheu Thai competed fiercely. In the run-up to the poll, while survey numbers allotted more than 200 seats to Pheu Thai and just under 100 to MFP, the five-year-old party surged and surpassed its 25-year-old competitor on two fronts.
Without a war chest of funds to entice and induce voters, the MFP had to operate organically and be hands-on. Whereas old-style Thai political parties paid canvassers who mobilise voters based on patronage networks and money machines, MFP's leaders and foot soldiers went all around the country to spread their message of institutional reform. The party's young supporters became its canvassers, connecting it with older generations upcountry and in other urban areas across the country.
The MFP's triumph can also be attributed to its reform agenda, which won over more than 14 million votes out of more than 36 million on the party-list ballots of proportional representation.
Thailand has gone through a paradigm shift in this election. As the MFP's attractive reform platform has shown, the battle for hearts and minds is no longer about populism and addressing the rich-poor/urban-rural divide, which Pheu Thai's political machinery has been phenomenally good at. The new battleground is about institutional and structural reforms of the military, monarchy, and judiciary, all the way to the economy, governance and the constitution.
Pita Limjaroenrat, the MFP leader, has announced he has the support of 313 MPs-elect among eight parties -- from 62% of MPs and basically the entire opposition bloc -- to form a government. However, the appointed Senate stands in the way because a bicameral majority of 376 parliamentarians are needed for the premiership. The 2017 charter was designed exactly for this situation, to undermine the electorate's democratic choices.
Unless the Senate splits and votes for Mr Pita as prime minister, the MFP is unlikely to be able to put together a coalition government. As it appears that about half of the 250 senators are loyal to Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha of the United Thai Nation Party, the incumbent prime minister, and another 80 or so answerable to Gen Prawit Wongsuwon of the Palang Pracharath Party, with the rest taking a neutral stand on the poll results, it will be a daunting uphill struggle to get enough Senate votes behind an MFP- and Pita-led government.
In addition, the referee agencies may well work in tandem with the Senate by going after Mr Pita for a small number of obscure media shares his family owns under his name. Disqualifying Mr Pita would decapitate his elected premiership and upend the MFP's effort to lead the new government. This is a tried and tested manoeuvre. Apart from the FFP case in 2019-20, a sitting prime minister was similarly ejected from office in 2008 for hosting a cooking show for which he received a token honorarium.
At issue is whether the incumbent power wielders behind these agencies and the Senate can get away with it again just like in the past. Popular support behind the MFP is growing. The factor the conservative wing cannot and will not tolerate is the MFP's unwavering proposed reforms of the military and monarchy, particularly the revocation of compulsory conscription and Section 112 of the criminal code, otherwise known as the lese majeste law.
These reform proposals are the new fault lines in Thai politics. The takeaway from the election is, therefore, about the roles and functions of the military and monarchy in Thailand's political system. From their ballot choices behind the MFP, many and more Thais are saying their country needs to change. If their voices are unheeded or familiarly disenfranchised, they are unlikely to sit around passively.
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.
- ABROAD AT HOME
- Thitinan Pongsudhirak