CAMERON DOUGLAS. Thailand’s elections – horse-trading, according to plan

Mar 26, 2019

The results of Thailand’s first post-coup elections went well for the military junta, following their script for keeping control of  government in the name, and name only, of democracy.

Thai politicians, including as a matter of course the country’s generals, are well-practiced in the dark arts of horse-trading. In the weeks to come, there will be many demands issued and promises made in the bargaining and wrangling that will follow the first post-coup elections in the country.

The poll, held on Sunday, produced the result the military wanted, leaving them strongly positioned to win their main goal: continued control of the government.

The election was a fake return to democracy, after almost five years of direct army rule, a façade that involved only the House of Representatives, as the Senate will be appointed by the military and will serve for five years.

The military employed a well-crafted plan to keep control. The blueprint included a new constitution, changes to electoral laws and unabashed exploitation of the powers of incumbency, with many mobile cabinet meetings at which the government bestowed gifts of new projects and funding on the local people.

Shortly before voting started, the Palace issued a statement from King Vajiralongkorn. He did not mention the election or take sides.

But the Palace said he was concerned about the country’s security and the happiness of the people. He recalled comments made 50 years ag0 by his father, the late King Bhumibol, stressing the need to promote good people to govern the country and keep bad people from power to stop them creating chaos.

It is impossible to know if the statement had any impact on voters.

No clear-cut winner emerged from the poll but this was within the bounds of the plan. The first aim was to peg back the power of the Pheu Thai Party, associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It succeeded.

The military’s proxy party, the Palang Pracharath Party, attracted almost 8 million votes and with 94 per cent of votes counted, was in front of Pheu Thai (7.4 million) – better than the neck-and-neck result many expected.

It is the first time since 2001 that a Thaksin-linked party has not won the popular vote.

Introduced in this poll was a hybrid constituency/party list system that punished big parties and rewarded smaller ones: the more constituency seats a party won, the fewer list seats it got.

At time of writing, Pheu Thai had won 135 constituency seats – and zero party list seats.

Palang Pracharath won 98 constituency seats and 19 list seats – a total of 117. This is a very good result for the party that is supporting the bid by coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha to hold on to the office once the parliament sits.

One of the surprises of the election was that the Democrats, the oldest political party in Thailand, were savaged. Their leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, predicted they would win at least 100 seats. At time of writing, they had 53.

They were wiped out in Bangkok, their stronghold: they won no seats. Abhisit swiftly resigned.

The Democrats lost support on the Right to Prayut’s party and on the Left to a new party, called Future Forward, founded only a year ago and led by a Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit, a 40-year-old businessman.

Future Forward is a Centre-Left, anti-junta party appealing to young voters. It came in third, with almost 5.8 million votes and 80 seats, including nine of the 30 seats in Bangkok.

Pheu Thai won 11 of the Bangkok seats and Palang Pracharath picked up 10.

The capital, which suffered the most from the decade of political turmoil and violence before the coup, is dominated by anti-junta parties.

Just as New York is not America and Sydney is not Australia, Bangkok is not Thailand.

Thailand now enters a period during which nothing much happens on the surface. Inevitably, there will be allegations of irregularities – vote buying and ballot tampering – and these will be investigated by the junta-appointed Election Commission.

The commission will declare official results by May 9, once it is satisfied 95 per cent of MPs have been properly elected.

Within 15 days, the King (whose coronation will take place between May 4 and 6) will preside over the first meeting of the new parliament.

The parliament will then elect a prime minister.

Part of the military’s plan, designed to pave the way for Prayut to keep control, is that the PM does not have to be an MP.

The election involves a two-step process: the House will try to elect a PM; if it is deadlocked (the most likely outcome on what we know now), there will be a joint sitting – the House plus the Senate, a total of 750 people. A majority is 376.

The hand-picked Senate gives Prayut 250 votes. He needs only 126 lower house MPs to back him.

Palang Pracharath’s 117 MPs is a very solid start.

Forming – and maintaining – a government majority will be much harder, because the system produced only five substantial parties and they will be split.

Any coalition government will have a long tail of minor parties, a recipe for instability.

As nothing happens formally before May, the generals have a lot of time for their horse-trading.

The election has gone well for the junta, according to its plan.

But it is military control by another name, not a return to democracy.

Cameron Douglas is an Australian businessman who visits Bangkok frequently.

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