Another promised poll date, another delay in Thailand. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s military regime said on Thursday that a tentatively set February 24 election will be pushed back to avoid any overlap with King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s royal coronation ceremony.
The government was expected to issue a royal decree on January 2 that would have effectively made the February 24 date official, but hesitated when the royal palace announced on New Year’s Day that the coronation would be staged between May 4-6.
The junta regime, which has leveraged various legal loopholes to postpone previously promised elections and a return to democracy since seizing power in a May 2014 coup, is this time constitutionally bound to hold the polls by May 9.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, a legal expert, said in reports that the junta must legally stick to the deadline and that the elections would not interfere with the coronation’s sacred rites and rituals, the first to be held in the country since 1950.
While Wissanu said the junta cannot extend that deadline under Article 44, a provision that gives the premier overarching authoritarian powers he has used arbitrarily and often to squash dissent and override laws and regulations, independent analysts are less sure.
While a court decision last year placed new limits on Article 44’s use, ruling its application must be “proportionate” and “justifiable”, the provision could still be applied in a security situation, including election-related violence or a perceived threat to the monarchy ahead of the coronation, analysts say.
Now as previously, Prayut’s regime has plenty of incentive to further delay elections and a return to democracy.
Few analysts expect the regime’s proxy Palang Pracharat Party to outpace Peua Thai, the party in elected power when Prayut staged his coup in the name of restoring stability and cleaning up politics, at the ballot box.
Indeed, one military insider with connections at the Internal Security Operation Command, a military spy agency, claims its polling has consistently showed, including as recently as two months ago, that Peua Thai will resoundingly win any free and fair election.
That’s despite the junta’s introduction of a new electoral system consisting of fewer constituency seats and a rejigged party list vote that critics say is specifically designed to prevent another Peua Thai election landslide.
One widely cited statistical analysis by blogger Bangkok Pundit shows that if the 2011 election, which Peua Thai won resoundingly, were rerun under the new election rules that the party would win 44 fewer parliamentary seats, down from 265 to 222. The rival Democrat party would win three more seats under the new rules.
The analysis, however, did not account for the newly formed Palang Pracharat Party, which is led by four current Cabinet ministers, none of which are known to have much popular appeal outside of Bangkok. Prayut has not yet indicated whether he will run as one of the party’s three required prime ministerial candidates.
The regime has also come under criticism for gerrymandering, redesigning ballots and censorship of social media, among other pre-election measures, that pro-democracy parties have claimed aim to give the military’s presumed proxy party an undue advantage.
Despite the regime’s recent efforts to strike a more conciliatory tone with sidelined political parties, Peua Thai and other aligned parties, including the upstart Future Forward party, have said they would aim to scrap the military’s constitution as a first act in power.
If so, that could strip the junta and its leaders of the legal immunity built into its constitution, which was passed in a 2016 national referendum under heavy election restrictions, including a ban on any “vote no” campaigning.
It would also dismantle political structures put in place to perpetuate the military’s political power under a nominally civilian government, including a military-appointed Senate with powers to check and remove elected politicians and force civilian leaders to fully implement the regime’s 20-year economic plan.
Fears of possible post-election political revenge cannot be discounted in determining the junta’s next moves. Coup-ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, seen by many as Peua Thai’s de facto leader, has recently taken critical aim at the junta’s record over social media.
The self-exiled former leader has boldly predicted Peua Thai will win as many as 300 of the 500 parliamentary seats up for electoral grabs.
Despite an earlier Election Commission threat to dissolve Peua Thai on grounds the criminally convicted Thaksin exerts influence over the party, his anti-junta media owner son, Pangthongtae, has joined its campaign team, signaling a senior role for him in a Peua Thai government.
Significantly, the 250-member Senate will also play a potential kingmaker role in selecting the next premier, opening the way for the creation of a potential minority government led by Palang Prachart with Prayut reinstalled as an elected premier.
Prayut has persistently touted the stability his military regime has restored after years of revolving and often volatile anti-government street protests staged reciprocally by the rival Peua Thai and Democrat parties.
Nearly five years later, however, it’s not clear that message rings with rural voters, particularly in the north and northeast regions Peua Thai traditionally wins, after years of heavy-handed repression of expression. Nor is it clear that the junta’s handouts have had the same resonance as the coup-ousted Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra governments’ better-marketed populist policies.
Any electoral result where Peua Thai notches a decisive victory but is prevented from forming a government due to the Senate’s intervention on behalf of Palang Prachart and its allies would have the potential to spark new anti-military instability, potentially around the time of the sensitive royal coronation.
Analysts believe the 2014 coup was staged in part to ensure that royalist generals rather than squabbling politicians were in charge to steer what was then seen as a delicate royal succession from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away in October 2016, to his then heir apparent son Vajiralongkorn.
While Vajiralongkorn, the tenth king of the centuries-old Chakri dynasty, has firmly and swiftly consolidated his young reign, the junta continues to highlight potential threats in the form of shadowy republican elements bent on overthrowing the monarchy, including an alleged cell operating in neighboring Laos.
The junta claimed to upend an anti-monarchy plot to disrupt Bhumibol’s sacred funeral ceremony with global dignitaries in attendance in October 2017. Military officials have since apprehended alleged anti-monarchy activists working to undermine the crown, including through the distribution of supposedly treasonous t-shirts.
Anti-monarchy activists in Laos have been linked by authorities to a radical fringe of the “Red Shirt” protest movement aligned to Peua Thai and loyal to Thaksin. Wuthipong Kachathamakul, a Red Shirt activist with anti-monarchy convictions, was abducted by Thai-speaking armed assailants from his residence in the Lao capital of Vientiane in mid-2017. His fate remains unknown, though rights groups fear the worst.
With Vajiralongkorn’s upcoming coronation now being cited as just cause for postponing polls, it is not inconceivable that junta officials will claim to ferret out and upend an alleged plot to disrupt the sacred royal ceremony, as they did during Bhumibol’s funeral rites.
Whether such a real or imagined plot is linked to the loosening of political restrictions now in place on political activities and election campaigning, and would legally justify Prayut’s invocation of Article 44 powers to postpone polls beyond the constitution’s May 9 deadline is a sensitive question without a clear answer.