The continuing crisis of Thai democracy
text size

The continuing crisis of Thai democracy


Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew, second right, and Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul, second left, announce the latter party is joining the new coalition at a press conference on Aug 7. (Photo: AFP)
Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew, second right, and Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul, second left, announce the latter party is joining the new coalition at a press conference on Aug 7. (Photo: AFP)

The prolonged volatility and instability in Thai politics attest to a continuing crisis of democracy since the military coup in September 2006. It is characterised by the nature, direction and duration of government after an election. Unless the poll-topping political party is backed by the conservative military-authoritarian regime, it is either not allowed to take power or gets overthrown while in office before completing its term. This crisis of Thai democracy has now persisted since the May 14 poll, as the formation of the next government remains stuck in a stalemate.

After the February 2005 election returned the Thai Rak Thai Party -- under then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a landslide victory -- to become the first elected banner to complete a four-year term, win re-election, and run a one-party government, it was ousted in a coup 19 months later. The next elected government, also aligned with Thaksin, lasted less than a year, as the ruling Palang Prachachon (People's Power) Party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in December 2008.

On the other hand, the military-backed government under the Democrat Party that took power thereafter went all the way to completion until the July 2011 poll, putting down pro-Thaksin "red-shirt" protesters in 2009-2010 in the process. Again, the Thaksin side won the election in July 2011 under Pheu Thai, with Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, as leader and prime minister. It was then toppled by another coup in May 2014. After five years of military government, which sponsored a new pro-military constitution in 2017, the March 2019 election again returned Pheu Thai as the largest winner.

But it was thwarted from forming a government. Instead, the military's Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), as the second-largest winning party under coup-maker Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, put together a rickety coalition government that lasted a full term despite its questionable performance. Now Thailand is witnessing the same pattern.

Although it won a plurality of 151 among 500 contested seats in the assembly, the Move Forward Party's (MFP) ability to form a government has been undermined by a combination of legal and constitutional charges from pro-regime saboteurs and the Constitutional Court as well as the military-appointed Senate. Its erstwhile opposition ally, Pheu Thai, with 141 assembly seats, now faces a different kind of predicament.

Pheu Thai, thus far, is not being threatened by the judiciary but instead constrained by its red-shirt base. By splitting from the MFP, Pheu Thai cannot join forces with the pro-military PPRP or United Thai Nation (UTN) parties and their 40 and 36 MPs, respectively. Many Pheu Thai voters can still bitterly recall how they were disenfranchised and forcefully suppressed by the army in 2009-10. To them, aligning with these pro-military parties and the 25-strong Democrat Party is unthinkable.

So Pheu Thai has had to start its government bid with the Bhumjaithai Party and its 71 MPs. Coming in third in the poll, Bhumjaithai is not a pro-military party per se but a patronage-driven camp with a stronghold in the northeastern provinces. It won just three of the 100 party-list seats under the proportional representation system, reflecting its popularity. By comparison, the MFP garnered 39 and Pheu Thai 29 among party-list MPs. The UTN nabbed 13 from conservative voters, and the PPRP received enough votes to muster just one.

The Pheu Thai-Bhumjaithai alliance intends to entice others -- not from the pro-military parties -- to enable them to reach the elected assembly's majority of 251. But the premiership requires a majority in the bicameral parliament, which amounts to 375, in view of the 250 unelected senators' constitutional allowance to vote for the prime minister. Pheu Thai does not have enough numbers at this time.

The party is asking the MFP to support its premiership candidate, despite having betrayed and relegated the largest-winning party to the opposition. The MFP would be foolhardy to go along with a Pheu Thai prime minister just to circumvent and neutralise the role of the Senate and the pro-military parties.

If the MFP supports Pheu Thai to take office together with the incumbent non-military parties from the outgoing Prayut-led government, principally Bhumjaithai, it will have a tough time explaining that to its support base.

The MFP's strengths are its reform programmes, fresh faces, integrity, and overall credibility. This party is about a new kind of political process in Thailand, not driven by patronage and pork-barrelling with commissions and kickbacks in the old-style money politics. Staying the course requires the MFP to stick with its principles. If the Senate and military-aligned parties end up with a decisive say over the formation of the government, it would be Pheu Thai's problem and a result of its expedient betrayal of the MFP.

Given that the pro-military parties in the outgoing administration cannot form a government without Pheu Thai, the post-election deadlock has become convoluted. If the MFP is not allowed to govern and Pheu Thai can't come up with a prime minister and government, an outsider based on Section 272 could contest the premiership.

The elusive government formation is becoming costly to businesses and undermining investor confidence. The 2024 fiscal budget that starts on Oct 1 will now be delayed. As the economic costs mount, the political pressure will rise.

If the largest winning party is kept out of power and the second biggest ends up unable to form an alternative government, a political crisis will likely ensue because the MFP and Pheu Thai combined won over 25 million votes, or 65%. Young Thai voters and red shirts alike are unlikely to stay quiet if their demands for change are systematically denied.

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.

Do you like the content of this article?