Thailand’s current political crisis is now nearly 12 years old.
September will mark the anniversary of the 2006 military coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the month of May will be remembered for the deposing of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Thaksin was hugely popular with the rural and urban poor of Thailand, enacting populist social and economic policies to the detriment of the military and business castes. His 2006 ousting, which followed a year of protests and tensions fuelled by allegations of graft and corruption, saw him replaced by a hard-line military junta.
This is not out of character in Thai politics — since 1932, there have been no fewer than 12 coups in Thailand, the most of any country in the world.
Thailand’s attempts to return to democracy since 2006 have been scattered and difficult. In 2007, elections were held in an unsuccessful attempt to replace the military junta. Many of the politicians that were part of Thaksin’s former party, the Thai Rak Thai (TRT), ran with a new party titled the People’s Power Party (PPP). The PPP won the 2007 elections, sparking the continuation of protests seen before the 2006 coup. Ultimately, the Constitutional Court disbanded the PPP and a range of its members, including elected Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, were banned from Thai politics for half a decade.
Thaksin-associated parties continued to win elections from 2008 to 2011, with protests and violence becoming part of the political norm. After the 2011 election of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, these tensions reached dangerous heights. Ongoing unrest triggered the 2014 military coup and consequently the establishment of the military junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), with General Prayut Chan-o-cha as Prime Minister (PM).
There has been relative stability since. A ban on political activity has meant that violence and protests have been reduced significantly under the NCPO. In 2017, three years after the coup, 52.8% of Thais stated that they would back Prayut to remain Prime Minister. That number has since dropped to 36.8% in the face of repeated election delays and the exposure of the Deputy Prime Minister’s extravagant luxury watch collection, valued at some $1 million.
When they initially came to power in 2014, the NCPO promised that elections would take place the following year. Since then, elections have been pushed back on five occasions, with the most recent delay sparking international pressure on the NCPO to return Thailand to a credible democracy. The assumption made by many international observers and commentators is that Prayut and the NCPO are delaying elections until they are sure that they will win and retain power. Indeed, Prayut himself has said that he is no longer a solider, but a politician.
However, the call for elections sooner rather than later may be futile. The junta has implemented constitutional changes and legislative reforms that favour medium-sized parties and undermine the strength of major parties, which are generally aligned with Thaksin and have won every election since 2001. These reforms include moves to make the Senate an appointed rather than an elected body, and cement the power of the military in the political system, as well as giving it the ability to appoint an unelected Prime Minister.
Ultimately, there are two scenarios that could unfold if are elections are held in November 2018, as has been promised by the NCPO (though possibly delayed due to further legal changes). The first would see the military-backed parties emerge from the electoral scrum as victors. If the NCPO were to be re-elected under the new electoral system, it is unlikely that the elections would be accepted as free, fair and legitimate. The last time that election results were rejected in Thailand was just four years ago, when not all polls were open to voters on the same day in the 2014 election. The protests that followed ultimately incited the military coup that led to the current power holding arrangement in Thailand. The will of the Thai people to reject questionable election results should not be underestimated.
The second scenario is that the NCPO does not win the election, which would mean the victory of a Thaksin-aligned party. However, this situation is not much brighter, with Thailand likely facing the same situation that it has since 2006: with popular support for a party that is considered illegitimate by the military and business elites.
Both scenarios fail to present an optimistic vision for Thailand’s political future. The call for the NCPO to host elections is thus somewhat misguided: the idea that elections will be the remedy for what are clearly deep societal and political differences is naïve and needs to be reconsidered by the international community.
Emily Wise is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.