From Padlock to Gridlock: Thailand's March Election
Justin Wintle is the author of Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi (2007 rev 2010) and a frequent contributor to the BBC, alJazeera and some other television and radio news channels.
Thai politics over the last twenty years furnish a narrative that might well inspire Shakespeare to write one of his history plays were he alive today. So here’s a bard’s eye view of events leading up to the first nationwide election since 2014, which took place on 24 March.
To begin with the dramatis personae. The two principal characters are firstly Thaksin 'Square Face' Shinawatra, the billionaire businessman and populist politician of known republican leanings, who became prime minister in 2001, having launched Thai Rak Thai (‘Thais Love Thais’) on Bastille Day, a party best described as a national front with lipstick. Second is former general Prayuth Chan-ocha who instigated a military coup in 2014 that ousted Yingluck, Thaksin’s supposed sister and elected prime minister. In essence the entire drama is epitomised by a prolonged and sometimes violent face-off between Thaksin’s Red Shirt followers and their Yellow Shirt adversaries representing conservative values based on allegiance to the throne.
A full supporting cast includes, as well as Yingluck, two kings, a princess and various senior politicians, notably Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Eton and Oxford-educated leader of the loyalist Democrat Party, and Thanathorn Juangroonkit, leader of the recently formed ‘Future Forward’ party that has a deliberate youth appeal and is anti-junta, anti-military.
In Act I Thaksin comes to power by building an effective electoral machine that harvests the votes of urban have-nots and of previously neglected communities out in the rural sticks. From the outset, although Thaksin successfully promulgates ‘Thaksinomics’, a way of redistributing at least some of his country’s wealth, flaws in his character emerge. Hoping to increase his popularity by waging war on Thailand’s drug gangs, he authorises the police to pursue a programme of non-judicial killings that rapidly gets out of control. Of the 3000 killed probably half are innocent of any drug dealing. He also abuses his prime ministerial position by enacting laws that enable him to sell his telecommunications company Shincorp to a Singaporean interest for a cool $2 billion.
In Act II the tide turns against Thaksin as the ‘establishment’ regroups. Thaksin responds by unleashing his Red Shirts on the streets of Bangkok. Disorder and some bloodshed follow. Thaksin struggles to maintain momentum and is forced to flee the country. Thailand’s oldest and sometimes largest political party, the Democrats, assume power, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva. At the same time the lengthy reign of the much-loved King Bhumibol begins drawing to a close as the ailing monarch squabbles with his unruly son, Vajiralonghorn.
Act III begins in 2011 with fresh elections. Facing criminal proceedings over a land fraud Thaksin remains in voluntary exile but nonetheless exerts great influence over Thai politics from afar. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, becomes prime minister, but as her brother’s puppet fails to impress. When Bangkok is devastated by floods she visits affected areas wearing expensive designer boots. In far-off London a senior Thai diplomat, asked how he feels about Thailand having its first woman leader, replies: ‘Mrs Thatcher had nicer ankles’. Unrest returns to the capital’s streets, paralysing Bangkok for many weeks. At length, in 2014, senior general Prayuth intervenes, staging Thailand’s fourteenth military coup and setting up a ‘National Peace and Order Council’, curiously reminiscent of Burmese strongman Than Shwe’s State Law & Order Restitution Council. Yingluck joins her brother in exile.
Act IV brings us up to the present. Prayuth’s padlock government succeeds in restoring calm by dealing harshly with opponents. This pleases many loyalists and traders as, not for the first time, an old Chinese proverb – ‘No matter who holds the head of the cow as long as we can milk it’ – gains currency. Promising a ‘return to democracy’ and elections Prayuth designs a new and eccentric constitution, reconfiguring Thailand’s erstwhile bicameral parliament. The 250-member upper house (Senate) is to be entirely appointed by the army. The 500-member lower (legislative) house is to be restored through a combination of direct (350 seats) and proportional (150 seats) representation.
King Bhumibol finally dies and his son, interested primarily in women and personal wealth, is declared the new king. Prayuth, now a civilian prime minister, delays calling an election until 24 March 2019. In a bizarre twist King Vaijiralonghorn’s popular sister, Princess Ubolratana, announce her prime ministerial candidacy at the head of the anti-military Thai Raksa Chart party, but two days later withdraws from the race after being denounced by her brother. Thai Raksa Chart is outlawed.
In the election the military Palang Pracharat party wins more votes than any other, but the Thaksinite Pheu Thai wins marginally more seats. The biggest loser is the Democrat Party. Abhisit resigns as leader, The biggest winner is new-boy Thanathorn Juangroonkit. His Future Forward party wins fifty seats.
Act V leads us into the unknown. On paper it looks as though the Lower House will be split down the middle between pro-military and anti-military, pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin MPs. More certainly Prayuth will continue as prime minister, since his constitution stipulates that the prime minister is to be chosen by a majority in both upper and lower chambers taken together.
However, before the results of the election can be officially declared, voting needs to be scrutinised by Thailand’s Election Commission. An announcement is expected early in May, when, by curious coincidence, King Vaijiralonghorn will have his coronation. So how this drama will actually end is unclear. Prayuth will most probably have to make some concessions to secure a viable coalition in the lower house. If he doesn’t then a fresh popular uprising threatens. But not during the coronation week. However much the King may be despised, there is still a tacit understanding among most Thais that the monarchy itself is sacrosanct.
Or not, as the case may be. No one really knows. The subtext of all this is an enduring and particularly pronounced tension between tradition and modernity. And, as the Abbot of Wat Pa Nanachat monastery once told me, ‘In Thailand anything, but anything may happen.’
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