It looks like the upcoming elections in Thailand will be very entertaining. Our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan has the story.
Let the fun times begin!
by H. Numan
I reported about the elections in The Netherlands, and now it’s Thailand’s turn. Prime Minister Prayuth sort of dissolved the cabinet and announced elections. That date is now published: the 14th of May. The day before, he will officially dissolve the government. So he is not a caretaker prime minister, but acting prime minister. Great. That means we’re in for a LOT of fun! Hope you still got your colorful shirts; you’re going to need them. Let me explain.
A Thai prime minister can call for elections whenever he wants. Nothing unusual here; many prime ministers have the same privilege. They usually do that when they consider the moment to be right, for themselves. Sometimes they have to call for elections simply because they run out of options. A cabinet, even a Thai cabinet, usually has term limits. They may find it difficult to postpone the inevitable. Just look at how the British Conservative Party tries to stay in power. At the moment it’s more an Italian operetta than anything else. Prayuth is having some problems in the popularity department and with the clock. He survived a vote of no confidence. By survive I mean: found a legal loophole to invalidate it. Don’t get me wrong; Prayuth is fairly popular among the population. It’s the opposition who really hate him.
And that brings me to the fun part:
You know who’s running again? Yup, the Thaksins. Not one, but no fewer than three this time. All his children are running for office. That surprised me a bit, because so far they didn’t appear to be interested in politics. Daddy got three children to run for prime minister. One is sure to win, the others are to support the winner. He also announced he wants to end his voluntary exile, and return to Thailand. Even if that means going to jail. He is in his seventies right now, and has spent well over a decade in exile. That means he is certain of victory. With good reason, mind you. Every time a Shinawatra runs for office they win by a landslide.
You see, the democratic system in Thailand is a quite different from the West. A vote is worth Bt. 500 or $15. That a big difference. Buying votes is illegal, it also is expected. Another big difference is how parties work. Yes, we do have a plethora of parties here. But parties themselves don’t matter. It’s the big shots in a party who matter. Parties merge, split, work together, become enemies or friends, according to the whims of the big shots. Very few parties are older than a couple of years, and almost all have a very local power base. In that district or province they hold an absolute majority, but anywhere else almost no presence at all.
When Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister his cabinet was the first cabinet in the history of Thailand to be a single party cabinet. That was because at that moment Thaksin was already a billionaire and merged many smaller parties into his own. Yes, he was hugely popular. Even without mergers his party would have been the biggest by far. Smaller parties simply merged to get a slice of the pie. Better something than nothing, right?
Voters expect some compensation as well. I spoke with a rural voter who said: of course they’re bribing us. We’re not that stupid! Both the Pheu Thai Party and the Democrats offer us a new four lane road to the village. We know the Phu Yai Baan (elected village headman, sort of mayor) will pocket the money, and his friends will build that road. If we vote for Pheu Thai, we get at least a two lane road. If we vote for the Democrats we get nothing. Who would you vote for?
I wrote this long ago, but it is still true today. Somehow the big shots of Thai politics never seem to understand that they have to deliver at least something of their many electoral promises. That means problems. Just about everybody over the age of six expects a landslide victory for one of the Shinawatras. They wouldn’t run, and certainly not three together, if they weren’t certain of victory. Their secret is no secret at all. They simply deliver what they promise. And why shouldn’t they? It’s tax money anyway.
On the other hand, we have Prayuth and his cronies trying to turn the tide. Prayuth wouldn’t be calling for elections if he wasn’t certain to win. Look at this lovely fella:
His name is Prawit Wonsuwong and is as corrupt as he looks. At this moment he is on tour in Isaan (poor rural northeast of Thailand) looking for votes. That simply means he’s bribing the local elites left and right to make sure the villagers vote for the right person. Anyone but a Shinawatra, that is.
General Prawit (ret.) is vice premier, and actually is a bit of a Thai comedian. When he entered office, he ‘forgot’ to declare a collection of very expensive watches and jewelry. A collection worth more than his annual income as a general, many times over. This became a huge scandal and was investigated by the Marlboro anti-smoking bureau. That’s how we see the National Anti-Corruption Commission here. They are so busy investigating corruption that their website is down or non-existent. Or they simply don’t give a hoot.
Prawit stated that this collection belonged to a friend, who sadly passed away. He had forgotten to return it to the next of kin. The NACC accepted that explanation. Even for Thailand, that’s a bit rich. To update you: this happened in 2017. He has yet to return the collection to the family of his diseased friend, and the family hasn’t asked for it. We’re talking about many millions of dollars here. A pittance, something one can easily forget. To rub it in, he flaunts exactly those watches and jewelry whenever he has the chance.
Okay, so what’s in store?
Well, a Shinawatra will become the next premier of Thailand. That’s a given. Thai premiers are not familiar with losing elections. Prayuth wouldn’t run again if he wasn’t sure of winning. That’s a given too. Only one can win; my money is on a Shinawatra.
There is a Thai proverb: the countryside elects a premier; Bangkok will send him home. Which is also true. The problem is that this rarely happens peacefully.
We haven’t heard much about the colored shirts. So far, they have been washed, ironed and put in the closet. Both the leaders of the red shirts (Thaksin supporters) and Yellow shirts (Bangkokians against Thaksin) were arrested, put on trial and sent to prison. Don’t be surprised if new shirts appear on the scene.
I cannot image Prayuth meekly vacating office. Or more accurately: the people represented by Prayuth. Being the elites and the top of the elite. We have occasionally extreme royalists in the news, especially when democracy and the monarchy are involved. You know what a royalist is. In Thailand everybody is a royalist. But some people take it to the next level. They resent the current lèse-majesté laws for being far too lenient. Twelve years per offense is not strict enough! I assume we’ll be hearing from them soon.
When a Shinawatra wins, he or she will face substantial opposition in parliament. General Prayuth (ret.) wrote the current constitution himself. In it the military are given wide responsibilities for decades to come. For example, the army can appoint a number of officers to the senate and in parliament and they have veto powers to block legislation.
Expect a lot of truly outraged people going to court to protect democracy, on any side of the political spectrum. A lot of investigations of the Marlboro committee. People holding banners with “protect democracy” in English and something very different in Thai. No idea how this will play out, but I do expect a lot of turmoil after the elections are over. Prayuth may boast he made coups impossible in his constitution; I doubt that seriously.
— H. Numan
I thought south-east asians where fairly intelligent and could create well functioning countries, but apparently not all south-east asians.
The country seems to function remarkably well in spite of the corruption. There is commerce, shelves are stocked, crime seems much less a problem that some areas of US cities. Lots of people are working and even having fun. I hope whoever wins doesn’t screw it up too bad.
“People holding banners with “protect democracy” in English and something very different in Thai.”
Why the coyness? What does the Thai text say?
That depends on the demonstration. Just be aware that “ฆ่าพรรครีพับลิกัน” means “kill republicans”, not “long live the king” in a royalist demonstration.
The same you saw during the Arab spring, where Arab banners had different texts from English banners. Having a different language doesn’t mean people are stupid.
It’s the western journalists who are … by focusing only on what they can read.