Thailand's semi-democracy faces risks

Thailand's semi-democracy faces risks


The government of Prime Minister and Finance Minister Srettha Thavisin has settled into an uneasy balance between the civilian-led majority forces that represent the Thai electorate and the royalist-conservative minority guardians of the established centres anchored around the monarchy, military, judiciary, and bureaucracy.

This new civil-military power-sharing outcome is as stable as Thai politics have been after two decades of recurrent military coups, judicial interventions, and colour-coded street protests. Notwithstanding the constant destabilising noises, this tentative political stability provides Prime Minister Srettha with a window to regain and remake the myriad opportunities that were lost under the nearly decade-long coup regime of General Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Mr Srettha has now taken over where the last elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra left off when it was deposed by the Gen Prayut-led coup in May 2014. The newly elected prime minister's job is to move Thailand forward from Gen Prayut's subpar interval when the Thai economy dimmed with signs of stagnation, while repression heightened and political decay set in, as Thais became less respectful of traditional institutions of power.

Ironically, the 2017 constitution drafted during Gen Prayut's rule to hand the junta one third of parliament by way of a military-appointed senate underpins what is believed to be a "super deal" that has persecuted and marginalised the reformist Move Forward Party, which won the election last May. Move Forward could still be dissolved with a ban on its leaders, particularly Pita Limjaroenrat.

It is believed that such a bargain allowed Pheu Thai Party founder Thaksin Shinawatra to return from exile and enabled Mr Srettha to become prime minister. Both events remarkably took place on 22 Aug. As Thaksin faced corruption convictions and a nine-year jail sentence, he was allowed a comfortable hospital stay instead of jail, while a royal pardon soon thereafter shortened his jail term to just one year. The Pheu Thai Party with Mr Srettha at the helm duly formed a coalition government with the pro-military Bhumjaithai, Palang Pracharat and United Thai Nation parties, breaking up the post-election Move Forward-Pheu Thai alliance.

In a clutch of power plays, the establishment shrewdly co-opted and turned Thaksin from chief enemy to convenient bedfellow, pitting him and Pheu Thai against Move Forward, the new threat now relegated to the parliamentary opposition because of its defiant agenda to reform the monarchy and military and remake Thailand's political order with a new constitution to do away with such age-old practices as the lese majeste law and military conscription.

Move Forward's electoral popularity and progressive reform programmes have thereby aligned the interests of the military on one hand and Thaksin and his Pheu Thai Party on the other for the first time in two decades. As long as the Srettha government has military participation, it could stay in office for the foreseeable future.

But if his performance proves unsatisfactory and unpopular, Mr Srettha could be replaced, perhaps by Thaksin's youngest daughter, Paetongtarn, who was recently chosen as Pheu Thai's new leader. Such a Pheu Thai premiership substitution would materialise more easily after May when the appointed senate's term expires and the upper house will no longer have the authority to vote for the prime minister in parliament.

Yet at 37, Ms Paetongtarn may want to take her time if Mr Srettha gains traction and produces results. Another irony of the 2017 charter is that it favours the incumbent prime minister. Any replacement would have to be drawn from the pre-election candidate lists of the main political parties. The only viable candidates after Mr Srettha and Ms Paetongtarn are Bhumjaithai's Anutin Charnvirakul and United Thai Nation's Pirapan Salirathavibhaga. Among this lot, Mr Srettha still has incumbency advantages, with Ms Paetongtarn in reserve.

The onus is thus on PM Srettha. That he is a civilian with a business background who is naturally pro-business is already a huge improvement on Gen Prayut. Mr Srettha has been omni-directional in pursuit of foreign relations and courting foreign investment. Hard-working and self-confident, despite not having a significant base in Pheu Thai and reliant on Ms Yingluck's support, Mr Srettha has grown into the job, thanks partly to his 1.9-metre frame and relative physical fitness.

His government's growth strategy appears twofold. One side is low-hanging, including a major tourism boost by exempting visas for Chinese and Russian visitors, among others. To boost domestic consumption, Pheu Thai's signature pledge is a 10,000-baht digital wallet for some 50 million Thais, although its intended multiplier effects seem limited due to high household debt and oligopolistic retail conglomerates.

More structural are the "soft power" campaign to market Thailand's cultural capital and culinary attributes, a planned "land bridge" in the southern region linking the Pacific and Indian oceans to attract commerce, and bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs), expanding on the Thai-EFTA and Thai-EU negotiations that are underway. Altogether these growth strategies are mixed and still need buy-in from local vested interests, particularly the FTAs, they are far better than going day to day without a long-term plan like under the previous Prayut government.

With the cabinet portfolios divided along party lines, Mr Srettha's hand will be limited. He cannot really tell other ministers outside of Pheu Thai how to run their portfolios. The grand bargain could also break down, leading to renewed political instability. For example, Thaksin may make political moves that undermine the deal he struck with the military. Move Forward's potential dissolution could agitate many of the more than 14 million who voted for the party. A renewal of a Move Forward-Pheu Thai alliance would ring alarm bells in establishment quarters and risk another coup or more judicial interventions. The charter change movement could institute reforms that will not be tolerated by the pro-establishment camp and military and thereby launch royalist conservatives into street protests again. Such risks of social unrest seen over the past two decades run on and on.

But the moving balance to watch is the autocratic prerogatives of the established centres of power combined with the preferences of the vast majority of the electorate. These two sides appear to be in a fragile compromise at this time.

As the second-largest winning party with more than 10 million votes, Pheu Thai has been allowed to form a civilian-led government with pro-military parties, while Move Forward has been kept at bay by judicial handling. This outcome has translated into a limited stable semi-democratic government and Mr Srettha's window of opportunity to get the Thai economy moving again as its chief conductor and salesman. Such an outcome is currently the best possible under prevailing circumstances.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, is professor at the Faculty of Political Science and a senior fellow at its Institute of Security and International Studies.

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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