Our custodial democracy on display

Our custodial democracy on display


Move Forward Party supporters flash three-finger salutes during a protest at Democracy Monument following the suspension of party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat in Bangkok on Wednesday. (Photo: AFP)
Move Forward Party supporters flash three-finger salutes during a protest at Democracy Monument following the suspension of party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat in Bangkok on Wednesday. (Photo: AFP)

After a watershed election and a clear message from voters for change, the integrity of Thailand's democratic system has come into question. It turns out that election results are only necessary but not sufficient to form a government and run this country.

The systematic denial and prevention of the poll-topping Move Forward Party (MFP) from the parliamentary speakership, the premiership, and a coalition government partnership represents a subversion of the popular will.

To the extent that it exists, Thailand's democratic system appears to be in the custody of the unelected powers-that-be to tailor and shape final outcomes as they see fit. Their preferences are to maintain the status quo, stifle fundamental reforms, and soldier on. In doing so, these unelected authorities are inventive and shrewd in deploying forces and using legal and constitutional instruments at their disposal to get the outcomes they want.

Their overall objective is to ultimately rule at all costs, directly when possible and through proxies and coalitions they either set up or can put up with. For example, after seizing power by force in May 2014, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha had absolute authority under Article 44 of the interim charter that replaced martial law. Junta rule, martial law and governing by decree were the most preferred way to stay on top of these authorities, brooking no dissent and running the country like a dictatorship.

But the absolute authorities of this country are relative when it comes to prestige, acceptance and international credibility. They don't want to be like Myanmar's disgraceful military government or even Cambodia's shameless elected dictatorship. Thailand's real rulers want to call the shots at home but also have "face" abroad. They want to be able to show the outside world that Thailand is a fit member of the international community and to placate the local population by allowing representation -- up to a point. The 2017 constitution was the result.

The latest charter was designed to enable elections to take place, but the final outcomes were to be decided by a clutch of so-called agencies and officials set up and appointed by the military regime in a watertight interlocking configuration, led by the Election Commission (EC), the Constitutional Court, and the Senate, supported by the anti-corruption commission and other constitutional bodies that can go after political parties and politicians. The military-appointed senate operated inside parliament, empowered to vote for the PM and effectively prevent charter changes, while the other agencies work in tandem in the judicial system and electoral arena.

When the March 2019 poll took place, this rigged democratic system worked spectacularly. To lubricate this system, a handful of accusers launched a bunch of allegations against this and that party and MP candidate. These allegations were duly accepted by the Constitutional Court and became options which could be exercised as needed in view of election results.

In the event, the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party came in second with 116 representatives but outmanoeuvred the largest-winning Pheu Thai Party, which won 136 seats. After the poll, voters and parties had to step back and let the EC and Constitutional Court make rulings about which parties got how many MPs. At this time, the various charges filed earlier also came into play and became buttons that could be pressed.

The Constitutional Court -- the much questioned of Thailand's judicial system because it includes not just trained judges but also bureaucrats with no legal background -- thus dissolved the third-largest winner, the Future Forward Party, and issued a ten-year ban on its leader and executive committee from running for office. Future Forward's leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, held shares in a media company, although the amount seemed insignificant, and the entity appeared irrelevant.

This same setup is now at play with the MFP's leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, whose premiership bid has failed because of senate opposition. Because of its proposed reform of the monarchy through an amendment in parliament of the lese majeste law, or Article 112 of the criminal code, Mr Pita and MFP may also be judged by the Constitutional Court to have violated and subverted Thailand's constitutional government. What is noticeable here is that the court appears to accept charges and petitions and then proceed in accordance with prevailing political circumstances.

In hindsight, what happened to MFP and Future Forward, along with Mr Pita and Mr Thanathorn, is not new. It is a repeated pattern that goes back to the military coup of 2006 and the dissolutions of the Thai Rak Thai and Palang Prachachon parties in 2007-08, along with the repeated bans on over a hundred elected representatives.

Since the government under self-exiled ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra lasted a full four-year term in 2001-05, only military-backed governments have gone the full stretch, a Democrat-led coalition in 2008-2011 and Gen Prayut's two stints in 2014-23. If a government comes to office with an agenda challenging the prerogatives and vested interests of the traditional power centres, it is unlikely to finish a full term. On the flip side, the incoming government, with apparent support from the custodians of Thailand's nuanced democratic system, may run a full course.

To be sure, our ruling custodians appeared to have been taken aback by the MFP's surprising victory at the May 14 poll. Together with Pheu Thai, the two biggest winners garnered about two-thirds of the electorate on the party-list ballots of proportional representation. The 312-MP coalition they came up with would have taken office in most other countries, but in Thailand, they were stymied by the appointed senators. With their inventiveness, Thailand's power holders this time have applied a divide-and-rule strategy to separate Pheu Thai from the MFP, weakening and marginalising the latter to keep it at bay.

If it is not altogether dissolved for its daring reform proposals, the MFP is likely to be relegated to the opposition. Ironically, and as proof of their durability and ingenuity, the custodians of Thai democracy have allied with Pheu Thai, the party whose two predecessors were cut to pieces by the same judicial bench that has intervened and is setting political directions in Thailand today. No one should have any illusion about the fitness of Thai democracy. This country is semi-authoritarian in deft disguise.

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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