End of Chaos
Thailand’s departure in 1932 from absolute monarchy to a constitutional one and its subsequent experiments with democracy, have been a plunge into a chasm of uncertainty and chaotic experimentation.
In its democratic experience, Thailand has witnessed a decades long feud between an established order backed by the troika of the monarchy, the military and the bureaucracy and the newly-evolving political parties.
Entrenched for over two centuries in history, the monarchy under the Chakri Dynasty is not only revered in Thai culture and in the hearts of the people, but has also penetrated in the established order of the country. For this reason, though the monarchs have welcomed democracy, they have deterred it from becoming an uncontrollable force that would trample under its feet, Thai heritage and aristocracy, which has also been the guard of its peace and security. But in this urge for control, the established order has made extraordinary feats in moulding the democratic ideal in its own unique casting.
However vital and satiating, the idea of democracy is always accompanied with vices like populism, electoral rigging, graft, money politics, corruption, cronyism and what not – Thailand’s political parties had all these germs too – and the only way the monarchs knew of to curb them from these vices was to end the game every time and restart from square one, hence 19 coups, 19 different constitutions, and 35 different prime ministers since 1932. Most of these constitutions have been written by the military itself with little or no participation of the political parties.
Owing to relatively people-friendly constitutions between the 1970s and 90s, Thailand saw a high growth rate of 7% to 10% that resulted in the growth of an educated middle class and an elite business class that pushed for more share in political power. However, political upheaval continued until the 10 years period of Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda followed by 2 years of Gen. Chatichai’s government from 1980 to 91. After this, there was political chaos again with continuous coups that did not allow any government to complete its full tenure.
In 1997, the military designed a new constitution that would ensure transparency and accountability by providing for a fully elected bicameral legislature, empowered to impeach unscrupulous cabinet ministers, and by installing agencies to check graft and the assets of politicians. Under the shadow of this constitution, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon and his party the TRT rose to prominenceand won the 2001 and 2005 elections. Thaksin rose through his populist agenda of income distribution that captured the hearts and minds of Thailand’s rural majority.
His economic activities led the country towards economic growth again and allowed him to induct cheap health care and rural microcredit programs that gave him a permanent populism. Yet, in all this time, criticism mounted against Thaksin’s abuses of power by which he monopolized the electoral system, manipulated the constitution and penetrated the institutions made for accountability. In 2006 as Thaksin sold a
family-owned telecom giant to Singapore, he approved a law that gave him a tax-exemption of US$1.9 billion, just one day before the sale. Thaksin was removed by a coup and went into exile.
From exile, Thaksin has continued to influence Thai politics and reorganized his followers in the People's Power Party that won in 2008 elections and its successor party the Pheu Thai, that won again in 2011, only to be downed by coups every time. The political chaos was only fenced when the military formed the National Council for Peace and Order in 2014 and self-appointed former General Prayut Chan-o-Cha the PM of the country, under whom Thailand has had its 2019 elections.
These latest elections have been designed under yet another constitution that allows the 500 seats of the Lower House to be elected, while the 250 seats of the Senate are all appointed by the Junta. Therefore, for Gen. Prayut to win, he would only require 126 seats in the Lower House.
The results were finally announced after a lag of one and a half months on May 9, with Thaksin’s Pheu Thai topping the field by 136 seats, the pro-Junta Palang Pracharath coming second with 97 seats and the Future Forward Party scoring 80 seats. The already pro-Junta electoral system was further manipulated by the Election Commission, when it awarded 11 seats to small parties that were not eligible owing to being much below the ‘popular vote threshold of 71,000 required for being awarded a seat according to the constitution – an act that is being interpreted as the EC’s ‘controversial calculation formula’, further proving the EC to be an instrument of the Junta. This was added with the usual allegations of EC malfunctioning, miscounting of ballots, vote buying and vote stuffing on Election Day.
All this has given General Prayut Chan-o-Cha an easy return to power, but gives democracy a bad name in the region. Critics have alleged that the long time gap allowed the military-royalist establishment to manipulate results, and that the 11 seats awarded to the unpopular parties will easily be bought by the Junta.
In an attempt to bar the General from consolidating power, 7 leading parties including Pheu Thai have made the ‘Democratic Front’ which have around 245 seats between them – a near majority in the lower house – yet far behind the General and the Senate combined.
If the Democratic Front is able to sustain its alliance, the least they would be able to do would be to make the General miserable in decision-making in the Parliament – and the worst they could do would be inciting a series of street protests and popular agitation around the country – a move that, sadly, may not be helpful in securing a true democracy for the people of Thailand – but would certainly be helpful in rolling the country into uncontrolled violence and in further destabilizing the peace prospects of the country and the region.
This Article previously published at SouthAsia.com.pk.