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Thailand: Time for Democracy

LONDON, May 22 2023 (IPS) - Thailand’s voters have spoken. In the 14 May general election, they overwhelmingly backed change. Two major opposition parties won 293 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives.

The party that unexpectedly came first, Move Forward, quickly announced it had formed a coalition with the runner-up, Pheu Thai, and six others, accounting for 313 seats. So if democracy is respected, when parliament next meets, the Move Forward-headed coalition should become the government and its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, prime minister.

But there’s a problem: Thailand’s powerful military. Over the past century, Thailand has had 13 military coups, most recently in 2014. At the last election in 2019, widely considered neither free nor fair, junta head Prayut Chan-o-cha donned a civilian suit and held onto power.

But this time, voters made it abundantly clear they don’t want the military in power. Now Thailand stands at a fork in the road: will a new, democratically elected government be allowed to take power? Or, as before, will the military intervene to stop it happening?

A biased system

There’s a powerful tool at the military’s disposal. Under the new constitution it introduced in 2017, the prime minister needs to win the approval of a majority vote of the combined House of Representatives and Senate. The Senate has 250 members – all appointed by the military.

This means 376 votes are needed across the two houses, leaving the new coalition short. The military minority might still be able to retain its grip, using Senate votes to disregard the reality of its lack of support.

The appetite for renewal Move Forward spoke to has been expressed on the streets for years – despite the government unleashing violence and criminalising protesters. Young people have been at the forefront of protests, demanding democracy, military reform and – challenging a long-held social taboo – stronger limits on the monarchy’s power.

Royal reform has historically been kept off the political agenda. In part this was because the previous king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, reigned for over 70 years and was broadly respected. But the same doesn’t go for his successor, Maha Vajiralongkorn, a billionaire playboy who spends much of his time in Germany. Vajiralongkorn expects a bigger say in government, and the military has been happy to comply. He insisted that clauses to protect royal power be included in the 2017 constitution and in 2019 took control of two army regiments. One of his first acts was to assume direct control of the crown property bureau, with a reported value of US$40 billion.

But Vajiralongkorn is buttressed from criticism by Thailand’s notorious lèse majesté law, which makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the monarch. The government has used this law extensively against protesters. At least 242 people have been charged with lèse majesté offences since 2020. Altogether over 1,800 people are estimated to have been detained under Thailand’s suite of repressive laws, with hundreds of child protesters criminalised.

Spotlight on political parties

Move Forward directly reflects the concerns of the youthful protest movement. Its proposals include reform of the lèse majesté law and closer scrutiny of royal spending. It wants to ‘demilitarise’ Thailand, including by scrapping military conscription, cutting military budgets and making the army more accountable and transparent.

These are ideas that break new ground in Thai politics, and many of the electoral roll’s three million new voters embraced them. Move Forward compensated for its lack of resources through intensive social media use and by encouraging its young supporters to engage with their older family members. Through such means, Move Forward went beyond the youth vote: it won almost every seat in Bangkok, traditionally held by pro-military and pro-royal parties, and also performed well in areas that usually back Pheu Thai.

Runner-up Pheu Thai is a more established force, dominated by the economically powerful Shinawatra family, which has long been at odds with the military. Both parties have relatively youthful figureheads – Limjaroenrat is a 42-year-old and Paetongtarn Shinawatra is 36 – offering a sharp contrast with the old military order, represented by 69-year-old Prayut. But beyond that, it isn’t the most natural of alliances, with the two brought together more by what they oppose than anything else.

Having expected to win the election, Pheu Thai may face the temptation of cutting some other deal that excludes Move Forward – although an alliance with pro-military parties would anger many supporters. Even if the two stick together, they might have to come to an arrangement with some pro-military parties, notably Bhumjaithi, which came third. But Move Forward ruled out any deals with parties involved in the current government, while Bhumjaithi has made clear its opposition to any lèse majesté law changes. The cost of compromise would likely involve dropping this, disappointing voters who invested their hopes in change and confirming continuing military and monarchical influence.

Time for democracy

Beyond the Senate, there are other challenges. The military establishment dominates supposedly independent institutions such as the electoral commission and constitutional court.

Both Move Forward and Pheu Thai may face attempts to close them down. There’s a history of this. Pheu Thai is the third version of a Shinawatra family-led party, while Move Forward is the successor to Future Forward, which picked up support from many young voters to finish third in the flawed 2019 election only to be dissolved. Already a complaint has been filed against Limjaroenrat.

But the military should accept that the political landscape has completely changed. It must stop trying to hold back the tide, whether by parliamentary manoeuvrings, abuses of the law or an outright coup. It can’t keep denying the democratic will of a clear majority, because this risks turning Thailand into another Myanmar, where the military can only retain power through the ultimately self-defeating exercise of ever-increasing brutality.

Instead, Thailand has the opportunity to offer a shining regional example by going the other way. It’s time for the military to understand this and act accordingly.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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