June 2023

Of kings, generals & oligarchs

With the triumph of pro-democracy parties over Thailand’s military-monarchy axis in the recent polls,  Yvonne Gill assesses the country’s current and future political scenario

Jack boots, monarchy, a corrupt bureaucracy and self-serving scions of big businesses literally owning political parties – these have long been the hallmark of Thai politics. A series of military coups, backed by one of the world’s wealthiest monarchies, have perennially hamstrung the country’s democratic and civil right movements, not to mention the deep-seated feudal loyalty for the king harboured by the older generation.

Yet Thailand – a founding member of ASEAN and the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia – has voted resoundingly against the military-monarchy axis in the country’s May 14 elections. Together, pro-democracy parties mustered a simple majority of 309 seats in the 500-strong lower house of Parliament; whereas the military-backed ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPP), led by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, and the break-away United Thai Nation Party (UTN) led by the incumbent  Prime Minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, won 40 and 36 seats, respectively. The conservative pro-monarchy Bhumjaithai Party (BP), led by the health minister Anutin Charnvirakul – often called ‘Cannabis King’ on account of his campaign for the decriminalisation of cannabis – won 70 seats.

In the lead is the newly-formed Move Forward Party (MFP), led by 42-year-old Harvard-educated tycoon-turned-politician Pita Limjaroenrat – now front-runner for the prime minister’s post – which bagged 152 parliamentary seats, a notable leap from the 81 seats it won in its last incarnation as Future Forward Party (FFP) in the 2019 elections. Those polls saw large-scale rigging by the military, which backed its former chief, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha’s Palang Pracharath Party.

The FFP, formed just before the 2019 elections by billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and largely comprising young businessmen, executives and academic lawyers, had then emerged as the third largest party in Thailand. Its staunch anti-military/anti-monarchy stance alarmed the military leadership, which prodded the Constitutional Court to disqualify Thanathorn for violation of election laws, and later to ban the party.

Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat
MOVING FORWARD: MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat

This sparked mass protests by large groups of young people in 2020, which lasted for months. The protesting youth demanded the resignation of 2014 coup leader Prayut, the repeal of anti-people laws and the framing of a new constitution. Popular anger against the military and the monarchy propelled the newly-formed MFP to emerge as the single largest party in the May 14 polls.

As for the traditionally popular Pheu Thai Party (PTP), led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra – daughter of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and niece of Yingluck Shinawatra, both former prime ministers – it managed to win 141 seats, marginally bettering its 2019 performance by five seats.

Thaksin, it may be recalled, was dismissed in a coup d’état by the military in 2006. He was accused of corruption, authoritarianism, treason, conflicts of interest, tax evasion, and selling assets of Thai state-owned companies to international investors. There were mass protests against his government, and organisations such as Amnesty International flagged up the regime’s dismal human rights record.

The military took the opportunity to depose him and grab power for the eleventh time since 1932. With numerous cases against him, Thaksin was forced to live in exile in Britain, where most of his family lived. Later, he is reported to have shifted to Dubai.

Nevertheless, the Shinawatra family has continued to wield considerable influence in Thai politics. In 2011, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister. Amid widespread protests against the family’s corruption, she called for the dissolution of Parliament in December 2013 and continued as caretaker prime minister till May 2014, when Thailand’s Constitutional Court sacked her for abuse of power for removing National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri in 2011.

The 2019 elections polls saw large-scale rigging by the military

The military seized power in a coup d’état in 2014 and later had her arrested in the rice subsidy scandal. Jumping bail, she fled the country in 2017. Like her brother, she was convicted in absentia.

In fact, the military, as well as the monarchy, have always been wary of Thaksin’s populist plank that made him popular among the downtrodden sections of society. These included programmes like his 30-baht card, providing universal health coverage, subsidised loans to poor farmers and other poverty alleviation measures launched during his tenure in 2001-06.

This time, 36-year old Paetongtarn Shinawatra’s promise to raise the minimum wage and waive farmers’ debts brought her only limited dividends and cash hand-outs through a digital wallet. The MFP’s anti-military stance and its promise to repeal the draconian lèse-majesté law, which allows a jail term of up to 15 years for defaming the King, appealed to the voters, particularly the youth who were involved in the anti-monarchy protests. That the MFP swept up 32 out of 33 seats in the capital Bangkok points to a hardening of the people’s attitude towards the military-monarchy nexus.

Pita Limjaroenrat plans to put together a coalition with Pheu Thai and four smaller parties –Thai Sang Thai, Prachachart, Seri Ruam Thai, and the Fair Party – with their simple majority of 309 seats. But this number is short of the 376 seats needed for a majority in the joint sitting of Thailand’s bicameral Parliament, comprising a 500-member popularly-elected lower house and a 250-senator upper house, nominated by the military.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Crony capitalism has made the rich richer

In a joint session, an aspirant must get at least 376 out of 750 votes to be elected as the prime minister. This gives the pro-military parties a huge advantage. With the support of the 250 military-appointed senators, they only need 126 seats in the lower house to form the government. In 2019, the unelected Senate played a key role in re-electing coup leader Prayut Chan-ocha as prime minister, even though his PPP had won 116 seats, as against Pheu Thai’s 136.

Traditionally, the military has been meddling in Thailand’s governance and politics and, despite several efforts, remains unaccountable to the civil administration, as is the norm in democracies.

Together with the King, who has immense wealth, the military has repeatedly thwarted attempts by democratically-elected governments to initiate reforms aimed at reining in the armed forces, curbing the monarchy’s authoritarianism and stopping it from splurging public money on the unimaginable luxuries enjoyed by members of the royal family.

The military establishment is thoroughly corrupt and its officers sit on boards of state-owned companies while controlling numerous businesses directly. Moreover, officers have often been accused of drug and human trafficking. The bureaucracy and the judiciary, too, have been playing along with the armed forces to throttle democratic movements and create hurdles for the smooth functioning of democratically-elected governments.

Thai anti-government mass protest, on the 47th anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, in Bangkok
The Constitutional Court’s banning of the Future Forward Party sparked mass protests in Thailand in 2020

At the same time, the country’s oligarchs seek to control the democratic process, with business barons funding and running political parties. Crony capitalism has made the rich richer.

The situation is Thailand thus remains fluid and it is not clear whether the military, which wields so much power, will allow fully fledged democracy to gain a foothold in the country. The formation of the government may take two months – the time required by the election commission to officially notify the results.

Ultimately, the May 14 elections are turning out to be an acid test for the establishment of a functioning parliamentary democracy in Thailand.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London