“In Thailand we like to say that this election is the decisive moment between the democratic side and undemocratic side,” says Peter Pongngern, a spokesman for the new Future Forward Party.
Ending five years of military rule, Thailand will finally host an election on 24 March. But after multiple delays, questions abound as to the fairness of the polls, particularly following the adoption of a 2017 constitution allowing the military to appoint senators. With military junta members creating their own party, many fear these elections may simply be a way to extend the military’s hold on power.
In 2014, General Prayut Chan-o-cha launched a coup against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra—the third time in eight years that the Shinawatras and their allies have been forcibly removed from power after being democratically elected.
Prayut’s junta granted him amnesty for the coup, appointed him prime minister, and endowed him with a slew of executive powers. Elections were cancelled and democracy was, in effect, put on hold.
Now, the military general is wading into the political fray as the prime ministerial candidate for the Phalang Pracharat Party, which was founded by multiple high-ranking members of the current military regime.
The junta and the Phalang Pracharat party
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, says Phalang Pracharat has been preparing for Prayut’s candidacy from the beginning.
“Since its inception, the Phalang Pracharat has been promoting the idea of nominating Prayut as prime minister,” he writes in a recent email to New Naratif. “Prayut himself has never been shy to endorse this party and so far has given some privileges to them, for example, allowing them to campaign for the election in some locations owned by the state.”
The other parties have already complained that Phalang Pracharat is being given preferential treatment by the government and Peter called the situation “clearly unfair”.
“In Thailand we like to say that this election is the decisive moment between the democratic side and undemocratic side”
Kobsak Pootrakool, spokesman for Phalang Pracharat, denies any bias as he tries to distance his party from the current administration, while simultaneously taking credit for popular policies.
“The way the government is being run will be totally different,” he says, adding that “good policies will be continued, some of the policies have been quite well-received.”
As an example, he points to the introduction of social welfare cards, which he claims has benefitted over 14.5 million people. But the cards have been at the centre of a recent political scandal, after the party was accused of threatening to withhold social welfare cards from people who didn’t register for Phalang Pracharat.
“Our record of the last four years, Thailand found new strength, new energy to change ourselves. We hope we can continue this energy going forward,” Kobsak says.
Kobsak insists that only four people in the party come from the current government, but those four are hardly political nobodies. Phalang Pracharat’s party leader is the current Minister of Industry Uttama Savanayana; he’s joined by Minister of Commerce Sontirat Sontijirawong and Minister of Science and Technology Suvit Maesincee. Then there’s Kobsak himself—he’s currently a Minister Attached to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Many doubt Phalang Pracharat’s commitment to democracy, including Pavin who doesn’t think the party actually believes in democratic principles.
“First, [the election] will be tightly controlled by the junta who in the first place has no trust and confidence in the electoral system,” he explains. “The junta, in my opinion, will try every single possible way to manipulate the polls to maintain its power interests.”
Regional analyst Paul Chambers agrees that the “quality of Thailand’s democratic future” is at stake this year. He doesn’t expect the vote to be free or fair.
“Election Commissioners were all chosen by the junta. The junta also influenced the selection of the judges who now sit on Thailand’s courts. These are examples of how, basically, the junta is able to exert enormous clout across the levers of the election,” he explains.
The most blatant rigging of the election comes in the 2017 Constitution, allowing the junta to directly appoint 250 senators to the 750-member National Assembly of Thailand. Assuming these hand-picked senators favour Prayut, Phalang Pracharat and its allies would only need to win 126 of the remaining 500 seats to elect Prayut as Prime Minister, a distinct advantage over parties like Pheu Thai and Future Forward, even though both are currently polling better than Phalang Pracharat.
Conflicts and crises
“Our party very much welcomes the return to democracy,” Kobsak says, calling Phalang Pracharat a “new choice” and a way to avoid the “old conflicts of the last 10 years”.
The populist Thaksin Shinawatra or one of his proxies has won every single election since 2003, but the military and political elites have never accepted his leadership.
Thaksin first became prime minister in 2001, with enormous support from the rural poor, and won re-election with an overwhelming majority in 2005. The military removed him from power a year later, eventually running him out of the country on corruption charges.
Through a proxy, Samak Sundaravej, Thaksin’s party returned to power in the very next election held in 2007. A year later, the Constitutional Court dissolved the party, removing Samak from power.
When elections were held in 2011, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck won an outright majority in parliament. Once again, the military had no option other than a coup to remove the Shinawatras from power.
Thaksin has long been opposed by the royalist Democrat Party and Thailand’s political elites who feared populist change. Many observers believe these groups manufactured a political crisis through mass protests led by “Yellow Shirts”, who accused Thaksin of not properly revering the royal family.
In his book Kingdom in Crisis, journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall claims the Yellow Shirts’ main problem was that “most Thais didn’t support them”. “They were an anti-democratic movement claiming to represent Thailand’s people but unable to win elections,” he writes.
The mass protests organised by the Yellow Shirts had the intended effect of causing societal chaos, and soon they were met by enormous crowds of pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts”, resulting in years of political turmoil that eventually justified removing Thaksin’s allies from power.
While he claims to support democracy, Kobsak seems unwilling to accept that Thaksin or his long-term adversaries in the Democrat Party could win the election.
“If either one of them win the election then you will run into another conflict,” he says. It’s a statement that seems innocuous until one recalls that past political conflicts have been solved by military intervention.
“If Prayut becomes PM and there are demonstrations in the streets by his opponents, we could see Prayut order military repression”
While both Thaksin and Yingluck are still abroad to avoid politically tinged charges, a few of their proxy parties, like the Pheu Thai Party and Thai Raksa Chart, live on. If the elections were fair, Pavin thinks it would be “highly possible” for Pheu Thai to win again.
“Many Thais are fed up with the ineffectiveness of the military government,” he says. “Today, none of other political parties can offer something truly beneficial to the poor like Thaksin.”
Thaksin’s economic policies, commonly referred to as Thaksinomics, included programmes for debt relief, increased access to healthcare, and rice subsidies. These policies have kept the telecommunications mogul immensely popular among the rural poor despite frequent accusations of corruption.
But Thaksin’s surrogates may face many obstacles even before election day.
Achieving long-term change
In a shock move, the Thai Raksa Chart party recently nominated Princess Ubolratana as their prime minister candidate, a decision swiftly shot down by King Vajiralongkorn on the basis that royal family members are constitutionally prohibited from participating in elections. There are now moves to dissolve the Thai Raksa Chart party for this violation, and many fear Pheu Thai may be next.
The pro-Thaksin party has already run into trouble, with numerous high-ranking party officials charged with sedition in 2018 for criticising the junta. The party has also been rocked by defections as some members abandoned ship to join Phalang Pracharat.
All eyes are on the surrogates of Thaksin and the military, but Pavin says there’s another party to watch: the Future Forward Party.
“There is a new party under the name Future Forward Party with a top agenda of removing the military from politics,” Pavin says, adding that observers like him are monitoring the party closely.
“Some say that the party is too willing to give up certain agendas deemed important in the process of democratisation, including the reform of the draconian law of lese majeste,” he adds.
“All our representatives are new-faced politicians that have never worked in politics before,” says Peter, who serves as assistant to party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
He says the party’s main objective is to “transition Thailand into a truly democratic country” and “stop the cycle of military coup d’états in Thailand”. “We’re not just a political party coming into politics because we want to send people to be members of parliament,” he adds.
The party is new and most of its members and supporters come from the younger generation, aged 18-25. Noting the crackdowns on the freedom of press under the current regime, Peter says the party primarily relies on social media to spread its message. Despite placing third in recent polls, FFP say they’re more focused on the long-term than winning this election.
Among their long-term plans is the establishment of a think tank foundation to develop new policies and a “social enterprise” to create a network for continued engagement with party members and supporters.
“Change is not something that can happen in one election or two or three years, it could take up to five years, 10 years, 20 years”
“Change is not something that can happen in one election or two or three years, it could take up to five years, 10 years, 20 years,” Peter says, adding that “our highest victory is to dominate ideas, not to actually win seats in the parliament.”
Among the ideas the Future Forward Party seeks to push forward is the drafting of a new constitution that guarantees rights like freedom of expression, downsizing the military, and achieving greater income equality.
But the party has also had to grapple with legal woes. Its leaders were charged for violating computer crime laws after posting a video on Facebook criticising the current regime.
It’s clearly an uphill battle particularly with the playing field so heavily tilted in Prayut’s favour. What’s more, Chambers warns that full-scale military rule could easily return.
“If Prayut becomes PM and there are demonstrations in the streets by his opponents, we could see Prayut order military repression,” he says.
Andrew Nachemson is a Cambodia-based reporter covering politics and human rights. Formerly with the Phnom Penh Post, he resigned during a mass staff exodus following the paper’s sale to a Malaysian investor with ties to the Cambodian government. His article on the lingering effects of Agent Orange in Cambodia won the 2018 Society of Publishers in Asia award for Excellence in Human Rights Reporting.