Three years after the May 2014 coup that brought General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his military clique to power, Western democracies are impatiently awaiting Thailand’s next general election, as promised by the junta under their declared road map to democracy.
But with the promulgation of a constitution that severely curtails the power of political parties, and the similarly tuned organic laws currently being drafted, sidelined Thai politicians are questioning whether the election will even be worth the bother of contesting.
The Constitution Drafting Commission has 240 days since the promulgation of the constitution on April 6 to draft 10 organic laws, four of which need to be passed before the next general election can be held. Those four laws are for governing a new Election Commission, political parties, parliamentarians and a fully appointed Senate.
The first two have already been presented to and voted on by the National Legislative Assembly, but still need to be vetted, redrafted and passed again by the assembly. They must then be approved by the Prime Minister and then endorsed by King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, after which they will be officially promulgated in the Royal Gazette.
Once all four laws are promulgated an election must be held within 150 days. Given the arduous process, it is expected that the earliest an election can be held would be in late 2018.
“There is still some room for postponement, so we are not sure the election will be held as scheduled, but a more important question is: Will the election be meaningful or meaningless?” asked Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former deputy leader of the coup-ousted Peua Thai Party, the party of the junta’s main nemesis, self-exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
“One of the priorities of this constitution is to get Mr Thaksin out of Thai politics and assure that Mr Thaksin does not come back to power,” Chaturon told a recent academic seminar in Bangkok on the organic laws drafting process.
Under the organic law on political parties, they will be prohibited from being run by anyone who is not a registered party member. Thaksin, who has lived in self-exile since 2008 to avoid jail time on an abuse-of-power sentence, is not officially a Peua Thai member.
This did not stop him from famously declaring “Thaksin thinks, Peua Thai does,” when announcing the party’s campaign platform for the 2011 polls, which catapulted Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra to the premiership.
One of Thaksin’s most successful campaign policies at those polls was the notorious “rice pledging” scheme that promised to buy “every grain” of rice from farmers at fixed rates that ended up being 40% above world market prices.
The boondoggle scheme resulted in Thailand losing its place as the world’s leading rice exporter and left millions of tons of rotting rice in warehouses nationwide, while spurring accusations of rampant corruption in the populist scheme for which Yingluck could yet land in jail on pending charges of dereliction of duty.
But not all of Thaksin’s policies were so poorly formulated. His “30 baht” universal health scheme implemented during his first term as prime minister from 2001 to 2005, was widely praised and much appreciated by the urban and rural poor, not to mention the lower middle class.
Such populist pledges, however, will be difficult to campaign on at the next election. Under the new constitution, political parties will need to identify their funding sources for their campaign promises.
They will also need to provide cost-effective analyses and expected outcomes, all of which is extremely difficult to do without access to public budget figures and data from important state agencies such as the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), the government’s chief macro-economic planner. Failure to meet these requirements could result in a party’s dissolution.
Once in power, any elected political party would also be duty-bound to follow the policies already put in place by Prayuth’s regime and stick to the general economic road map his junta has set out in a 20-year agenda.
“There is not much room for us to play,” said Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister in the Democrat-led government that ruled from 2008 to 2011. “We will become a sort-of confused child because no one could act with his own intellectual capacity to serve the people since everything is already imposed,” said Kasit, who is also chairman of a junta-appointed subcommittee on political reform.
The junta, which has restored some semblance of calm and normalcy in Thailand after a decade of political upheaval, scored a significant victory over the political parties with its referendum last August, in which the population resoundingly endorsed its military-guided constitution.
But it is questionable whether the Thai populace was or is fully aware of the content of the new charter, which was poorly publicized due to restrictions on free speech prior to the vote.
The charter-drafting process was done with minimal input from Thai politicians, with a few exceptions such as Kasit, who comes from a civil service background in the foreign ministry.
“What has happened in Thailand over the past three years and in the two years to come before the election, and for the years to come under the constitution and the 20-year national program, is about directing and controlling and commanding society,” Kasit said.
“And I think the military junta believes that is the way Thailand will achieve progress, prosperity and security,” he said. “But you cannot run a society in a clinical manner, where the germs are the politicians.”
The future of Thailand’s political parties may hinge on the mood of the country’s urban-based middle class and elites, without whose backing political change comes hard.
But both classes seem weary of street politics and unrest at a time when the country is still going through a sensitive royal transition from the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej to his son King Vajiralongkorn.
“Thai people have to pay respects to the royal cremation of our late king [October 26.] Anyone coming out on the streets trying to do something stupid, trying to do something to disrupt the calmness of the country right now, would be deemed inappropriate,” said Anutin Charnvirakul, head of the medium-sized Bhumjaithai Party.
“After the royal cremation comes the royal coronation. These two important events will take a while to complete,” Anutin said. “I won’t make any plans until these two historical events are completed.”
Whether the Thai people will be inclined thereafter to come out on the streets demanding genuine democracy remains to be seen. “They aim to have a system like this for another 20 years, so it depends on when Thai people learn that this kind of system is no good for the country,” Chaturon said. “I think it will take a long time, maybe 15 years.”