Junta's ambition to stay on in power has given rise to a unique scenario marked by a distinct ideological divide Experts believe Prayut can be defeated in the election but consensus will be needed to end a culture of coups
WILL THE junta stay or go? This question seems to be uppermost in voters’ minds, pushing to the rear bread-and-butter issues popular in previous election campaigns like price guarantees for agricultural products, free schooling, healthcare etc.
In less than two weeks, Thailand will be voting for the first time since the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) seized power in 2014, in an election many see as an ideological battle between the democratic and authoritarian camps.
Hence, as politicians campaign for votes, make speeches and participate in debates, their stance on the junta has become important. The two camps began taking shape after the 2006 coup, but this phenomenon was not seen in the post-coup election in 2007. So, why now?
The power of democracy is the answer, political scientist Suraphot Thaweesak said. Though the red-shirt movement was huge 12 years ago, he explained its pro-democracy position was nothing like it is today.
“Most of the time, they were called ‘champions of [former PM Thaksin] Shinawatra’s interests’ – wanting an election as a means to support Thaksin. Nothing about them was seen as contributing to democracy,” he said. “Also, the Shinawatra camp was cautious when it came to democracy. They didn’t want to take risks, so they made compromises with the right wing.”
However, through political turbulence and debates, the pro-democracy camp has grown and developed, he explained. The pro-democracy camp, which had been tied to the Shinawatra bloc, appears to have found its independence, he said.
In this election though, the war between the liberals and conservatives has been accentuated, mainly thanks to the emergence of Future Forward Party (FWP), he said.
“I give FWP credit for giving momentum and emphasising the ideology of democracy beyond just paying it lip service,” he said. “This has given birth to a so-called pro-democracy bloc, which has given rise to a battle between democracy and authoritarianism.”
As for the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party, Suraphot said he has also seen a change in them that backs his idea of this ballot being a battle between the two ideologies. He said that after all these years, Pheu Thai has finally realised that it cannot make compromises with the right wing, and hence has decided to focus more on its beliefs and economic policies.
Apart from the deep-rooted conflicts plaguing the Kingdom for over a decade, other political observers are seeing other angles that make this election unique.
Pro-democracy activist Nuttaa Mahuttana’s said the NCPO regime and its political ambitions make this election very different.
“Previous coupmakers did not show any signs of wanting to cling to power, unlike this junta,” the activist said. “This time, the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party – which shares the same name as the government’s cash-handout programme – is so obviously working for the junta. In fact, it was founded by the junta’s Cabinet members.”
Nuttaa said she believes the party’s every move is planned for General Prayut Chan-o-cha to retake power. For instance, she said, the party has headhunted an unprecedented number of former MPs.
“And now Prayut is their PM candidate,” she said. “It will become even easier for him to take over thanks to the 250 senators he has appointed. So, this plan to have Prayut stay on has given rise to this ideological battle.”
The battle can also be blamed on the NCPO’s legacy, such as the 2017 Constitution and its 20-year national strategy, Nuttaa added.
These strategies will dictate the direction of the country for the next two decades, yet there has been very little public participation in their creation.
“So, this election is significant. If Prayut does return, he will have all this apparatus,” the activist said, implying the junta chief may be unstoppable if he does win the election. “It is important that we support the pro-democracy camp, so that after the election all these NCPO-created strategies can be removed.”
FWP deputy leader Chamnan Chanruang, however, believes politicians are still focusing on bread and butter issues.
In fact, he said, the anti-junta sentiment largely stemmed from the NCPO’s poor performance. So, when people vote against Prayut, it will only show that they want the military to be out of politics and want professional politicians to do the job and put money in their pockets, he said.
But where will this battle take the country?
All three observers responded differently.
Chamnan believes the junta will be easily defeated, as it will not win any support from the House of Representatives.
“Prayut will never survive the censure motions,” he said. “The 250 senators won’t be able to carry him, and he will just have to give in when the sentiment against him is strong enough.”
However, he admitted this triumph will not necessarily guarantee an end to coups. The only way coups can be stopped is if there is a common consensus, he added.
The two other observers, however, see only a dim hope for democracy.
Nuttaa said that with the dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party, the anti-junta bloc has only a slim chance of winning.
Similarly, Suphot said new regulations have put the pro-democracy camps at a disadvantage, but maybe defeat is a necessary process for the development of democracy.
“Each time they are defeated, injustice is exposed,” Suphot said. “In the process, the conservative camp is destroying its credibility and legitimacy. So, though it will be a long, tough fight, it will have to continue until democracy triumphs or until the elite yield to liberal democracy.”