For the longest time possible, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has attempted to stay mum on his political future. He cast himself as a reluctant coup-maker, who held power only to rescue his country from falling further into a deep and prolonged crisis. He said repeatedly that he did not enjoy being in power, even as many speculated about the prospect of him staying on as prime minister even after a return to democracy.
This year has seen a steady unravelling of Prayut’s uneasy denial of his political ambitions. First he admitted, early in the year, that he was a soldier no more and instead a politician; in April, he said he would be willing to be prime minister even after elections are held. This has led to a flurry of activity as both friends and foes mobilised to support and obstruct him, respectively.
For nearly two decades, Thai elections have become mostly predictable. Parties led by or aligned with the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has won every single general election since 2001. The Democrat Party has consistently been relegated to opposition status except for a brief spell in government between 2008 and 2011, a feat produced through parliamentary manoeuvring rather than through an electoral victory.
Now, however, as it becomes clearer than ever that the military regime does not intend to go gently into that good night, Thailand’s politics is undergoing a transformation. No general election date has been definitively set, although Prayut has currently indicated the possibility of a February election, yet a new political battleground is already slowly but surely taking shape.
Established parties face new threats
The Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai party, who used to be electorally unrivalled, was predicted to easily win the next general election, whenever it was to be held. Recent events show this may not be the case.
Newly established pro-regime parties have been reported to be aggressively wooing former Pheu Thai MPs, and it has been speculated that many are considering defecting. While this has been reported in multiple media outlets, it is not officially sanctioned and Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, has been charged with the Computer Crime Act for making this accusation. The party’s support in its own strongholds has also been crumbling as the government has taken a page out of Thaksin’s playbook, who bought the supposedly undying support of Thailand’s northeast through popular populist policies such as free healthcare and rice subsidies. Prayut’s populist ‘Thai Niyom’ and ‘Pracha Rath’ platforms, it seems, are peeling away former diehard Thaksin supporters.
The Democrat Party, on the other hand, also faces a challenge. Whereas it was in years past often seen as the only alternative to Thaksin’s parties, the pro-regime parties that have been set up by the prime minister’s allies may now appeal more to portions of the electorate who support Prayut as opposed to the Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who spoke out repeatedly against the coup and the military government.
In addition, the Democrats are now threatened by the establishment of the Ruamphalang Prachachartthai Party, co-founded by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister turned protest leader, a figure still enormously popular among the former protesters who helped bring about the fall of the last Shinawatra government and pave the way for the military coup in 2014. As many of these same protesters supported Abhisit in the past, a shift in party allegiance could be fatal to the Democrats.
Thailand’s new political divide
It is now becoming clearer and clearer that Thailand’s next general election may be fought not between the traditional pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin camps as was the case previously, but instead between pro-coup and anti-coup parties.
A recent seminar at Thammasat University on June 14th, attended by Abhisit, Pheu Thai key figure Chaturon Chaisang, billionaire founder of the newly-established Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and pro-regime People’s Reform party founder Paiboon Nititawan revealed this difference extremely starkly.
Abhisit, Chaturon and Thanathorn all voiced a desire to rewrite the junta-sponsored 2017 constitution, which guarantees a role in politics for the military in the foreseeable future; Thanathorn had even threatened to rip up the entire document. Paiboon, on the other hand, voiced support for the charter, telling the audience they would like it eventually after bearing with it for another five years.
This revealed a fundamental divide: the two major established parties, along with the highly progressive Future Forward party, which had all refused to support the 2014 military coup and the 2017 constitution, would now be pitted against the pro-regime parties that favour Prayut continuing in his post after the election. For this reason, the next election will likely become a referendum on whether or not the Thai electorate approves of the coup and the military’s continued role in Thai politics. It will also give Thai voters the opportunity to vote for the first time on their approval of Prayut’s premiership.
Terrain favours the regime
Despite the electoral muscle that the Pheu Thai and Democrats bring to the battle, the political terrain ultimately favours the pro-regime parties.
Firstly, Pheu Thai’s defections are likely to leave it weak and vulnerable, and its vote is likely to be split with those who support Thanathorn and his Future Forward party, which comes without the Thaksin baggage of the past and can ostensibly claim to represent a new future in Thai politics. It remains to be seen, however, how Thanathorn will fare given his legal issues. The Democrats will also have to struggle with ensuring its voters are not lured by Suthep’s Ruamphalang Prachachart party and other pro-regime parties.
Secondly, the new constitution ensures that the government will have the upper hand. A new electoral system is unlikely to produce a landslide for any party as it is difficult to win a majority of the seats, meaning Pheu Thai will be hard-pressed to reproduce its 2011 victory. The new constitution also allows the upper house, whose senators are appointed rather than elected, to play a role in choosing the next premier. Should Prayut secure the support of the 250 senators, he will only need to win 126 more seats out of the 500-seat House of Representatives to be elected prime minister.
Finally, the government’s current refusal to lift the political ban allows it to court voters while other parties cannot yet begin their election campaigns. Although the government denies it, Prayut’s mobile cabinet meetings are not dissimilar to Thaksin Shinawatra’s attempts to gain popularity by holding cabinet meetings in the provinces to approve local projects and gain popularity. The head start is likely to favour the regime.
This, of course, is still very much in the speculative stage, with the general election’s date yet to be set. But this much is clear: for the first time in five years, Thailand’s voters, denied a voice in their own politics since 2014, are about to be given a choice about their country’s future path.