Thai Elections: Rinse and Repeat

The recent Thai elections were quite a surprise. Our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan has the latest.

Thai elections: rinse and repeat

by H. Numan

Last Sunday we had the first free elections in a long time. The government was soundly defeated, as everybody expected. The incoming government will be a progressive government. Don’t be alarmed. It’ll be a Thai progressive government. You can compare a progressive Thai with a progressive Texas republican. Definitely not a ‘Western’ progressive. Even today a communist party is illegal in Thailand. We’re now in the honeymoon phase of a new cycle.

You see, Thailand isn’t a democracy. It’s a coup-o-cracy. I’ve lived for thirty years in Thailand, and witnessed many coups. At least four, plus several failed attempts. Ever since Thailand became a democracy (in a coup!), it has been the preferred way to change governments. I’ve counted the coups in Thailand and cabinets in The Netherlands since 1932. It’s about the same. We vote a government out of office, in Thailand the army does that for the people. Sometimes very bloody, like the 1976 coup. The most recent military coups were with a minimum of bloodshed and even welcomed by the population.

The current elections went as expected, but with a some surprises. Prayuth’s government lost by a landslide. The big man himself finished in fifth place. Rather embarrassing, but expected. No surprise here. All conservative (= military/royalist) parties lost in a big way. We also have a Democrat Party. They were wiped out in Bangkok, which used to be one of their strongholds. Oops! That party cannot be compared with your Democrat Party. Much more corrupt, far less democratic. Why did they completely disappear in Bangkok? They were the core of the yellow shirts, who caused so much grief and hardship in Bangkok. The voters remembered. Also not a big surprise. The Democrat chairman apologized for the abysmal performance of his party and resigned.

The big surprise was that the Shinawatras didn’t won outright. In the last two decades, when a Shinawatra ran for office, he or she won by a landslide. They didn’t this time, a first. The Pheu Thai Party came in second. Not bad, but not expected and will have serious consequences. For example, Thaksin Shinawatra announced his plan to return to Thailand. He misses his grandchildren so much that he is willing to go to jail. Yeah, and I have a bridge for sale. It was easy to say before the elections, when he could expect one of his children (three of them ran for PM) would be elected PM. I think his desire to see his grandchildren is a bit diminished now.

The winner of the election is the Move Forward Party with Pita Limjaroenrat at the helm. Granting Thaksin a full pardon is far more difficult for him, if not outright impossible. He doesn’t have filial obligations.

General Prayuth Chan-o-cha (retired) still has a few tricks under his shoulder boards. He was the guy who ousted the last democratically elected government and formed his own junta. He stayed in power for as long as he possibly could. After writing a new constitution he grudgingly allowed elections, which he narrowly won, last time. One of the tricks I expect him to use is the 60 day rule. The election committee — appointed by him — has sixty days to approve the election results. At this moment it is difficult to contest the election results, but in a few weeks? Who knows? Also, the time isn’t right to commit a coup. 60 days is a long time, in Thai politics.

Another trick under his shoulder boards is the senate. The PM has to be accepted and voted for by both houses. Prayuth appointed a number of generals as senators. It is not certain whether those appointees will vote for Pita Limjaroenrat. They announced they will abstain from voting for any prime minister, so as to remain unbiased. But we’ll have to see if that holds. Mr. Pita did throw a gauntlet in the senate by saying that they can vote for whomever they want for, but have to live with the consequences.

Which brings us to the possible new government. A big surprise to me (and many others) is that Pheu Thai immediately accepted the election results. They are happy to serve under Move Forward and Pita. That’s very un-Thai! You’re supposed to fight until the death for the top spot! Fourteen days ago two young Buddhist monks somewhere ‘up country’ beat the stuffing out of each other, and made the national news. The reason? They fought over better, more prestigious, seats during a religious ceremony. Clearly, both have a long way to go on the path towards enlightenment. The public didn’t like it, but that’s how you do it in Thailand.

Both parties are somewhat progressive and left-leaning. Move Forward much more than Pheu Thai. They have beautiful plans. They intend to build magnificent cloud castles. Transparency in politics (always a good slogan), great things for the people, lower electricity prices, gay marriage finally approved, and many more pipe dreams. The problem is that all those grandiose plans cost money. They are notoriously silent on where to get it. Borrow it? Raise taxes? No idea. The economy isn’t doing that well, and the IMF won’t give any. China perhaps?

What really worries me is that they both (certainly Move Forward) want to attack ‘the system’ itself. Thailand has many interest groups. The big three are the people, the military and the monarchy. Move Forward was voted into office by predominantly younger voters on two issues: the army out of politics plus abolition of military conscription and serious restrictions on the powers of the monarchy.

Both institutions aren’t going to be happy about that. Even less likely they will turn a blind eye. Worse: the trend is going in the opposite direction. I worked for a blog, translating daily news stories from Thai into Dutch. That was before King Rama IX died, until a couple of years later. I noticed and reported many small changes in the royal organization. For example, the Crown Property Bureau was managed by the ministry of the interior. Under the new king it was given back to be managed as he desires. That’s a pretty big deal, as more than one third of all land in Thailand is owned by the king himself, personally. The Royal Thai Police has a special elite unit assigned to the royal family. That unit belonged to the police, but now they are managed and financed from within the palace. They kept their uniforms and ranks, but are now paid for by the royal household. Effectively becoming a separate organization.

As for the army, every officer in every country that abolished conscription still weeps about it. Being an officer in an army of 15,000 men is far less prestigious than in an army of 150,000. In Thailand, being an officer holds serious economic privileges, not just social ones. Apart from that, it’s very nice to have a full company of batmen at your disposal. No, not na na na na Batman!

Both ideas are very popular but doomed to fail. The military and the monarchy stand to lose too much to let it happen. So, my expectations aren’t very positive. Just look at the recent history of Thailand how that works.

Thai politics works in cycles. An unpopular government is removed by a military coup. The military smells a chance (to get rich quick), and grabs it. They quickly appoint a civilian government of their preference, and return to the barracks. That government is either popular or given the benefit of the doubt. Pretty soon they discover ‘the system’ cannot be beaten, and it’s a lot more profitable to work with it rather than against it.

That makes the government less and less popular, which has to resort to stricter measures. For example, Mr. Pita will discover very soon that those draconian lèse-majesté laws he wants to abolish are pretty handy to control the opposition. And opposition he will get! Partly from the conservatives who want him out as soon as possible and disappointed students who voted for the impossible.

My expectation is that we’re now in the honeymoon phase. Everybody is looking eagerly for change. That change will take a lot longer than expected. In a couple of months people will start noticing that expected changes simply don’t come. By then lots of scandals will have happened. I always have to laugh when Dutch or American people talk about their own corrupt government. Holland stands at the 8th, the USA 24th and Thailand at 101st place on the world corruption index! Compared to Thailand you both live in squeaky clean countries.

That creates an unruly atmosphere, with students marching on the streets demanding change now. Pretty soon a new group of officers will smell an opportunity to get rich quick and change the government. As always, ‘for the betterment of the people’. I give the coming government about a year.

Rinse and repeat.

— H. Numan

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