Officially, Monday’s registration of election candidates was not a significant milestone for Thai democracy. Nevertheless the excitement it generated among pro-democracy Thais, political parties and their candidates has sparked anxiety for the country’s anti-democratic movement.
This year’s election will certainly be crucial for the future of democracy in Thailand, though the outcome is in reality fairly predictable. The 2017 military-written Constitution incorporates legal mechanisms designed to enable the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta, to retain its grip on power after the election.
Before the NCPO finally agreed to hold the poll, there had been ongoing political disputes – both in the real world and on social media – over the merits of elections versus continued military rule. These fights will persist ahead of next month’s election, whose result will indicate whether Thais want a liberal democracy, or the so-called “Thai-style democracy”, in which the universality of human rights is denied.
Last week, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha spoke to the nation about his achievements during almost five years in power, claiming to have made significant contributions to Thailand. The pro-military Phalang Pracharat Party hopes to capitalise on Prayut’s many populist programmes, such as the much-criticised welfare card for the poor, to gain votes.
Prayut’s economic achievements will hardly convince the rural population and many other Thai voters, but his claim to have brought political stability, through military suppression, remains convincing to people across the political spectrum. This will not, however, easily transfer into votes. These days, rural Thais make more complex voting decisions than the typical picture of vote-buying suggests.
Meanwhile the persistence of Shinawatra-phobia continues to serve the interests of Phalang Pracharat, the Democrat Party and the Ruam Palang Prachachart Thai Party, especially in wooing urban-middle class voters.
In the rural North, the picture is still very different.
“I trust Thaksin because his party delivered what they promised us: we can go to hospital when we are ill now. We remember a big drop in the drug problem when Thaksin was prime minister,” said a villager who preferred to remain anonymous, referring to PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s drug war, whose extrajudicial killings were criticised as violating human rights.
The incumbent Pheu Thai party won almost 16 million votes in the 2011 election, sweeping the North and Northeast (Isaan), under the leadership of Yingluck Shinawatra. Although it was thanks to her brother’s legacy that she won 265 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives, Yingluck also rejuvenated the Shinawatra brand by introducing popular rice subsidies (a policy that eventually brought her downfall) and other policies that were greatly welcomed by rural populations, especially in Isaan. Pheu Thai’s long history and success in the region underscores the loyalty rural voters feel towards the party.
Nevertheless, voter loyalty won’t be the only factor in the party’s performance. Embedded patronage networks – especially in rural villages where politicians tend to portray themselves as generous patrons rather than public servants – will also be key. As a consequence, Pheu Thai may suffer in areas where their former MPs have been poached by Phalang Pracharat.
However, public trust in Pheu Thai’s ability to deliver promises remains high compared to its political rivals, especially the Democrats and Phalang Pracharat.
Will election restore democracy?
The NCPO will likely maintain its grip on power, either with Prayut or another surrogate as next prime minister. The voting power of the 250 NCPO-appointed senators, enshrined in the 2017 constitution, assures that. So the question arises, why have elections at all?
The vote will be a crucial barometer of whether Thailand is moving forward. A regional beacon for democracy and development during the 1990s and early 2000s, Thailand’s democratic progress was abruptly halted and reversed by the 2006 and 2014 military coups.
The erosion of democracy and retrenchment of authoritarianism was hardly new, being a facet of Thai politics since the bloodless 1932 revolution. Since then, a group of conservative Thais among the political establishment have remained convinced that it is premature for the country to become a “Western-style” or “liberal” democracy. Over time, this group re-enforced its so-called Thai-style democracy, which limits freedom of expression and denies the universality of human rights.
Thai history over the past decade is in line with a global trend for democratic decline. However, the emergence of newcomers such as the Future Forward Party has not only encouraged a new generation to enter politics but also influenced old parties like the Democrats to provide space for political newbies.
Of course, the parade of fresh, young faces won’t change Thai politics overnight. The conservative political establishment is deep-rooted and enduring, but political newcomers can bring fresh ideas to Thailand’s democratic movement in the long term.
Effects of campaign restrictions
Despite domestic and international criticism, the junta continues to defend its ability to ensure a “free and fair election”, denying the need for international observers from the European Union or the UN.
NCPO-imposed restrictions may force more “constructive” campaigning, especially among anti-junta politicians. In Isaan, where campaign rallies are being closely monitored, many Pheu Thai candidates have avoided criticising the NCPO. Instead, they are focusing on a more positive discourse, with slogans such as: “Brothers, it’s your voices, your power to choose in March” and “Brothers, we can take our power back by going to the polls and voting against them.” This helps to instil a core democratic value in the minds of voters – “people power ”.
There’s no doubt however that a cloud of fear and intimidation hangs over the election. The NCPO has not created an equal playing field for all parties. Indeed, the restrictions will likely reward longstanding parties because of existing voter loyalty, with newcomers suffering as a consequence.
Ultimately, the election can only meet international standards if the NCPO takes a neutral stance. Without that neutrality, the national vote is nothing more than a means to legitimise and prolong the military’s political power.
Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University.