If Thailand’s military government allows an election next year, now tentatively scheduled for February 2019, the junta leader and his backers are poised to dominate the post-election landscape.
A military-appointed Senate, a legally immutable 20-year economic plan and criminal charges that will keep top self-exiled opposition politicians out of the country and off the ballot all tilt the playing field in the incumbent junta’s favor.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup when he was army commander, is widely perceived as a top candidate to extend his premiership.
“Why are you so interested in me?” the often moody Prayut asked reporters who wanted to discuss expectations he would remain in power after the election. “I will decide when I will announce. It’s entirely up to me. What’s the point of exposing myself to criticism so soon?” he said last month.
In early October, the junta leader still had not formally announced his candidacy or joined any political party.
Prayut could run as a candidate attracting voters impressed by his hard-line rule which crushed political street violence and restored stability through heavy curbs on civil liberties, including a ban on political assembly of over five people and censorship orders on the media.
Or he could be reinstalled as prime minister by a squabbling hung Parliament under a constitution devised by his rubber stamp National Assembly and passed in a 2016 national referendum. National elections are for a 500-seat House of Representatives.
The junta will oversee the appointment of 200 out of a 250-member Senate, including six allowed seats for the head of the army, navy, air force and national police, plus the military’s supreme commander and defense permanent secretary.
The regime initially said it would hold elections and restore democracy in late 2015, but postponed them each year to 2016, 2017, 2018 and now 2019.
Prayut’s main opponent remains the popularly elected, polarizing and authoritarian former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family clan.
Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 military coup, in which Prayut participated, and became an international fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence for conflict of interest in a Bangkok real estate deal involving his then-wife.
While abroad, the billionaire Thaksin boosted his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to win a 2011 election and become prime minister. She was ousted in 2014 for “criminal negligence” two weeks before Prayut’s democracy-suspending coup.
Yingluck also fled overseas to avoid a five-year prison sentence for “criminal negligence” after failing to stop corruption in her administration’s rice crop subsidy scheme, which officials say cost the country billions of dollars worth of losses.
“There are some people who got rich from these two coups but there are many more who suffered worse, and our beloved Thailand has been viewed unfavorably by people around the world,” the self-exiled Thaksin, 69, recently posted on his Facebook page. “Hasn’t our country suffered enough?” Thaksin wrote.
“Thaksin and his legacies, his party, personality cult and populist policy measures,” are Prayut’s biggest threat, said Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister under a Democrat Party-led government and prominent critic of Thaksin and Yingluck’s rule.
“Prayut and his allies have to be certain that they will have the majority before the holding of the election. They will not go to the election in order to lose…they could keep on postponing the election date,” Kasit said in an interview.
“The constitution and related laws are not democratic, so an election in substance cannot be democratic,” Kasit said.
When asked how democratic the poll would be, Tom Kruesopon, former senior advisor to Yingluck’s Peua Thai Party, replied in an interview: “Less than U.S.A.’s, more than North Korea’s.”
“Thailand’s military junta should immediately lift restrictions on civil and political rights so that upcoming national elections can be free and fair,” Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights group, said in a statement.
“Current laws, policies and practices of the [junta’s] ruling National Council for Peace and Order…do not permit political parties to freely organize, express their views, or campaign. As a result, Thailand does not yet have an environment for free and fair elections.”
Though he remains overseas, Thaksin’s enemies — including Prayut — are not expected to romp to an easy victory at the ballot box, even if the Election Commission enforces censorship guidelines barring any campaigning against the junta or its perceived proxy party, Palang Pracharat.
“Prayut seems to be the most likely candidate to lead the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party. But he is not a popular figure, despite military propaganda,” Patrick Jory at Australia’s Queensland University School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry said in an interview.
“The conservative Democrat Party, which provided the main political opposition to Thaksin’s parties since 2001, now looks weak and divided.
Their leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is tainted not only by his role in the May 2010 killings, but also his involvement in the ‘whistle-blowing’ protests that provided the pretext for the 2014 coup,” Jory said.
In 2010, Abhisit presided over a military crackdown against a nine-week insurrection in Bangkok which resulted in the killing of 90 people — mostly ‘Red Shirt’ protestors who supported Thaksin.
Abhisit’s party also led anti-government “Shutdown Bangkok” protesters in 2014 who crippled Yingluck’s administration, paving the way for then-army commander Prayut’s putsch. Today, younger “aspiring politicians” inside Abhisit’s Democrat Party want it to become a “New Democrat Party”.
Asked about election issues, the New Generation Democrats replied in a statement on September 19, the 12-year anniversary of a previous coup:
“Almost 70 million Thais have been starved of their basic civil rights and liberties since the military coup over 4 years ago. We are pushing forward a case for turning Thailand into a liberal democracy,” the reformers’ statement said.
“We may face opposition from representatives of the current government who believe in a paternalistic, centralized state with conservative values that may delay or resist a return to full democracy,” the New Generation Democrats said.
Election competition currently appears to be a three-way race between Peua Thai, Palang Pracharat and the Democrats. Peua Thai has yet to announce a leader to head its election campaign as a potential prime minister, though de facto party leader Thaksin has a history of tapping his family members for the role.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978