Thailand is about to return to popular elections but the democratic facade will ensure the military remains the country’s fourth branch of government. New rules should confirm the 2014 coup leader as prime minister but will leave him relying on a coalition to govern
After almost five years of military rule, Thailand is about to don a democratic mask on Sunday when the people will elect a new House of Representatives. The election, however, is not a return to democracy but rather the implementation of what Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha has called Thai-style democracy.
General Prayut has also spoken of his intention to make sure there are no more coups – meaning there would be need for the army to stage a coup because it would maintain effective power. The generals have no intention of handing over full power after the poll.
The government is using four changes to the Thai political system to help it keep control of the main levers of power:
. A hybrid first-past-the-post/proportional electoral system that will reduce the number of seats won by big parties (such as former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party)
. Allowing the parliament to elect as PM someone who is not a member of Parliament – introduced to clear the way for Prayut
. A Senate appointed by the military
. Holding a joint sitting to elect the PM, with the biggest bloc of votes being the 250 appointed senators.
The lower house will have 500 members: to be chosen as PM a candidate will need 376 votes. With the Senate votes guaranteed, Prayut needs 126 MPs to back him. The votes will come from Palang Pracharath, a party set up to support him, and smaller parties. The main parties are opposing him.
Under the new system, parties must name their prime ministerial candidates in advance. Prayut’s long-crafted plan came under severe threat when one of the smaller parties nominated a princess.
Thai Raksa Chart, a party associated with Thaksin and set up exploit the system favouring smaller parties, put forward Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn. The princess renounced her royal titles in 1972. She said she was now exercising her rights as a commoner.
She would have been a popular – perhaps unbeatable – candidate. But her political life was short, for the King overruled her. He said the princess was still a member of the royal family: the involvement in politics of such a high-ranking person defied Thailand’s traditions, customs and culture.
There followed a public discussion that took place in a parallel universe where the party was to blame, as though the princess played no part, even though the constitution obliged her to sign a letter of consent.
The Constitutional Court later dissolved the party, saying nominating a member of the royal family was hostile to the institution of the monarchy.
Thai Raksa Chart became the third Thaksin-related party to be dissolved by the court. The other occasions were in 2007 and 2008.
Historically, Thailand’s governance has been marked by authoritarian rule. Since 1932, when a coup brought the absolute monarchy to an end, the country has undergone 12 successful military coups.
It means Thailand really has four branches of government: the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the military.
The army had been reluctant to ease its grip: five promises of elections over its five years of direct rule have gone unfulfilled. After Sunday, the military hopes its plan will let it continue its role in government in a disguised form. If Prayut becomes PM, the military or close allies will occupy key ministries.
Now that the election is a reality, the Thai people are keen to have a say in who rules them. Polls suggest more than 95 per cent of people will vote. This looks high but the turnout at the last post-coup election, in 2007, was 85 per cent.
The people will be voting for some 10,000 candidates belonging about 80 parties.
Important issues include inequality and household debt. A Credit Suisse report late last year rates Thailand as the most-unequal country, with the richest 1 per cent controlling 66.9 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
Household debt is also a pressing issue. Measured debt has been rising over the years and is now 78 per cent of GDP. If informal loans were counted, debt might be equal to 100 per cent of GDP.
The strength of these issues was underscored late last week when the Palang Pracharath Party, Prayut’s strong supporters, suddenly announced plans for a big rise in the minimum wage and increases in the starting salaries for skilled workers and graduates; cuts in personal income tax; and minimum prices for farm products, including rice, sugarcane, rubber and palm oil.
This is a sign of panic, as the conservative forces over the years have denounced similar policies offered by Thaksin’s parties as populist. The battle between the military, the bureaucracy, royalists and Bangkok business leaders, on the one hand, and Thaksin, on the other, remains central to Thai politics.
Opinion polls suggest people favour Prayut as prime minister, with Pheu Thai’s Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan and the Democrat’s Abhisit Vejjajiva behind him.
With his Senate support in the joint sitting, Prayut should have a lock on the prime minister’s position.
The hard part will be forging and maintaining a stable majority in the House of Representatives.
The lower house has 500 seats: 350 from constituencies and 150 from party lists.
Previously, people have had two ballot papers – one for their constituency and one for the party list.
In the new system, there is only one paper. A party’s representation is capped according to a formula that means the more constituency seats a party gets, the smaller its allocation of party list seats.
Big parties are pegged back; smaller parties win more list seats.
The new government will be a coalition, probably of many parties.
Historically, Thai coalition governments have been fractious and it is at least mathematically possible for Prayut to be anointed as prime minister but not be able to command a consistent majority in parliament.
Unruly government would be the worst possible result of the elections – for it would tempt the military to examine its options.
Cameron Douglas is an Australian businessman who visits Bangkok frequently