How many ways can you respond to the big question: When is Election Day?

opinion April 13, 2017 01:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

Aren’t we all supposed to be hugely excited now that we have a new constitution, rolled out on April 6? Aren’t we supposed to be celebrating a new era of democracy? Aren’t we all ready for another new chapter in Thailand’s political life?

Not so fast. Things are much more complicated than we thought. But then, we are all supposed to be law-abiding, God-fearing citizens. So we can’t behave like “wet blankets” when we should be out on the streets shouting happy slogans about reform and reconciliation.

One might note that it’s our 20th charter in 85 years of “democratic rule”. What is there to jump up and down about? Still, we are told that we have now have a chance to “start afresh” and we should appreciate another opportunity to prove that we can forgive and forget – and write a new chapter with hope and vigour.

But isn’t Article 44 – that special clause that gives the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) absolute power – still in force despite the existence of a new constitution that promises a greater degree of freedom and liberty to the people? Isn’t it true that even with the new charter enforced, political activity remains under close control – and political parties still can’t start hold meetings or talk to their voters?

Yes, that’s all true. We might think we are ready for the next big thing. But authorities remind us that we are still in “transition”. But didn’t we just step out of the “transition point”?

Well, transition can be a long and tortuous process, especially in politics. There are the normal transitions and then there are post-transition transitions.

In economic terms, it’s common knowledge Thailand has been caught in the so-called middle-income trap for the past decade or two. Little did we know that we had in fact been sandwiched by a far worse trap. I would call it the political transition trap.

In other words, we have been placed in a perennial position of transition. We have become so used to the coup-election-coup vicious circle that we can’t seem to be able to get out of this trap – so much so that provisional or interim constitutions have a history of being in force longer than the “permanent” ones.

These days when people ask me, in a tone of great optimism, when Election Day will be, my answer, to match the degree of hope, is: Follow the road map.

That, admittedly, doesn’t mean much. It’s as tentative and transient as replying: Who knows? But then, the question is so vital, so overwhelming and in fact so obvious that for anyone to retain his or her sanity in this political fluidity, some kind of a stock answer is almost unavoidable.

That’s why I found the explanation offered last week by a Thammasat academic, Prinya Devanaruemitr, a deputy rector at the storied university, so enlightening.

He said that if we strictly interpret things based on the NCPO’s road map and take into consideration the timeframes provided by the law, the new general election should be held in September, 2018 – or roughly 19 months from now.

Now, that is as specific as anyone can get about a date for the next ballot-casting. But before you start to draw up a personal plan for reviving your political activity, read the follow-up sentence carefully. He said: “But if any of the organic laws related to the election as stipulated by the constitution fail to be passed by the interim National Legislative Assembly, then the election would have to be postponed … and the new charter contains no clauses to cope with a contingency to that effect.”

Is that the hidden political time bomb nobody has warned us about so far? Or is it a kind of “safety valve” to defuse any possible crisis in the foreseeable future? But then, it could simply be an oversight.

Suspicious minds will promptly suggest that this lack of a Plan B in case the assembly fails to pass organic laws on the election is in fact intentional – engineered to provide a legal excuse to keep postponing the election indefinitely.

But then, more critical minds have countered that there is no way the military could keep its grip on political power much longer than specified in the road map since the people won’t put up with that scenario.

How then, you may ask, do we prevent this new potential stalemate from igniting a fresh crisis?

The simple answer is: Don’t worry. We shall muddle through yet again. The real answer: Refer to the previous sentence.