Why Thailand stuck with a military government

Last week, a new Thai government, which had been in the making since the 24 March election, swore an oath of allegiance to King Vajiralongkorn. The new government looks a lot like the old one. General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who appointed himself prime minister after the coup in 2014, retains the office. And members of his pro-military party, Palang Pracharat, hold the most influential ministerial portfolios.

Why didn’t the election dislodge the military government? Partly because the military rewrote the rules. And partly because a decisive number of Thai voters prefer the steadiness of military governments to the volatility of civilian governments.

The military scripted a new election law. The generals wanted to prevent the resurgence of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Since 2005, they had accumulated ample reasons to hate Thaksin, who won elections in 2001 and 2005. He interfered in military promotions. He curbed the military’s budget and power. And he challenged the monarchy, the ultimate legitimiser of the military’s political role.

The election law was designed to prevent Thaksin’s one-party dominance. In 2005, his party won 377 seats in the 500-seat parliament and in 2011, under his sister Yingluck’s leadership, 265 seats. For this election, the generals moved Thailand towards a mixed-member proportional voting system, which fosters smaller parties and coalitions.

As well as changing the law, the military allowed parties to campaign only three months before the election, and blitzed its opponents with lawsuits. In addition, some outspoken critics of the election’s unfairness were attacked. The military was variously blamed for orchestrating the assaults, failing to try to apprehend the assailants, and failing to protect the victims.

In its recent report, The 2019 Thai general election: a missed opportunity for democracy, the respected Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) concluded that Thailand’s election was ‘partly free, and not fair’. It criticised the military government for not establishing ‘the healthy political climate that lies at the heart of a free and fair electoral process’.

Unlike the proportional voting systems in places like Germany and New Zealand, where voters have separate ballots for constituency and party-list candidates, in Thailand voters marked only one ballot.

The best way to explain how the system was meant to work is with an example. The Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai Party received 22% of the popular vote. In a 500-seat parliament, that would equate to 110 seats. But Pheu Thai had already secured 137 constituency seats so it wasn’t eligible for any party-list seats. The pro-military Palang Pracharat received 24% of the popular vote, equating to 120 seats. It secured only 97 constituency seats, so it was entitled to 23 seats through the party-list system.

After the party-list seats were calculated, the parties likely to form a pro-military coalition were slightly short of a majority. In what ANFREL called its ‘most flagrant misstep’, the military-appointed Election Commission, supported by judges of the Constitutional Court (whose terms had been extended by the military government), changed the distribution formula for the party-list seats. The pro-military coalition suddenly had 254 MPs—a bare majority, but a majority nonetheless.

Any reasonable analysis of the election can’t disregard the biases in the electoral system, the constrained campaign, or the post-election manipulation of the outcome. Nor can it disregard the fact that, even though the generals stacked the cards in their favour, they won only narrowly.

But, equally, any reasonable analysis can’t disregard the reality that more than 45% of Thai voters, after five years of direct military rule, still favoured parties that sympathise with, or tolerate, a military government. This reflects an enduring preference for order and a disdain for the quarrelsome, self-seeking and often corrupt conduct of many elected politicians.

Therein lies an obstacle to democracy in Thailand: the institutional weakness of elected legislatures. Since 1932, when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, the legislature has struggled to check the power of the executive government and the military, which have mostly been able to rely on the backing of the judiciary and the monarchy.

The leader of the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, understands the problem. After the election he said, ‘We must make parliament a place of honour, not a place where people’s faith goes to die.’ His party won 18% of the popular vote, with policies aimed at weakening the political influence of the military.

Thanathorn hasn’t ruled out street protests—a favoured political tactic since 2005 of both the yellow-shirted and red-shirted sides of Thailand’s deeply polarised politics. But he will resort to the street only ‘when all options are exhausted and when parliament can’t function’.

Ironically, Future Forward’s efforts to elevate the legislature might be enabled by a champion of the Democrat Party, a party which in recent years, including through boycotting elections in 2006 and 2014, made a mockery of its own name and reneged on its commitment to democratisation in the 1990s.

Chuan Leekpai, twice prime minister in the 1990s and now an elder statesman of the Democrat Party, is the speaker of Thailand’s parliament. In the 1990s he boldly tried to reform the military. The astute Chuan knows that the legislature, responsibly led, can become a more credible institution.

If Chuan gives Future Forward a fair hearing in the parliament, the generals’ views of elections, even controlled elections, may become dimmer. And voters’ views of elected MPs and the legislature may become a little brighter.

Editors’ note: The author will be speaking about his new book at Asia Bookroom in Canberra this evening and at the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Melbourne on 24 July.