May 15, 2019

The End of Democracy in Thailand?

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON — In 1851, Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon and the President of France, staged a coup against himself.

The coup was a pretext for cracking down on key institutions and consolidating his power. One year later, he became Emperor Napoleon III. In London, Karl Marx, watching these events unfold, wrote one of his most famous observations: that history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy and the second as a farce.

Marx would likely feel the same way watching the recent events unfold in Thailand. The level of corruption on display in March’s parliamentary elections led one highly-respected and long-time local leader to lament to me that, “the government and military are demeaning themselves and acting in a more backward and reactionary manner than I can recall here.” What it means, and where it all will lead, is anybody’s guess.

Even for a nation that has had twelve successful military coups and seven failed attempts since 1932, the 21st Century has seen a tortured new chapter. Here is where history repeats as tragedy: over the past two decades, the military has repeatedly hit the reset button on democracy, installing temporary rule-by-generals while it lays the foundation for new elections. But in the past few years, the military has decided to do away with the reset button all together. Following a 2014 coup, what the locals have always affectionately referred to as “Thai-style democracy” is starting to look a lot more like a permanent dictatorship.

The recent election was marred from the start by the junta’s blatant maneuvers to maintain its power. In some areas, more votes were recorded than there were voters. In others, voters seemed to vote twice. The final results released by the Thai Election Commission last week indicate the junta’s actions were enough to win the popular vote, but not enough to win a parliamentary majority — with the opposition Pheu Thai party gaining the most parliamentary seats. That leaves both the junta and the opposition scrambling to form parliamentary coalitions. But with the junta continuing to create as many obstacles as it can muster, this remains an uphill fight for the opposition.

How did Thailand’s democracy reach this sad state?

It started in 2001 when populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister on the promise of helping farmers in the country’s neglected northeast. He implemented programs ranging from universal healthcare to farm subsidies, efforts that generated as much love among the rural poor as it did hate among the urban elite (who paid for the programs) and the military. In 2006, Thaksin became the first prime minister to win re-election in modern Thai history. It was too much for the military, which staged a coup.

Thaksin was quickly indicted and forced to flee the country. In 2011, Thaksin’s youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister as a proxy for her brother and his populist policies. But in 2014, she, too, was also forced to flee the country after another coup brought the current military junta to power.

Here is where history becomes farce.

Since Thaksin and his allies had won every election held this century, the military knew it could never win at the ballot box. So, the junta has spent the past five years doing everything in its power to make elections less free and more favorable to the generals.

First, the junta implemented a new constitution that cemented the military’s hold on power, granting itself the power to appoint all 250 members of the Thai Senate. This gave the junta a 250-seat head start over Thaksin and his allies at the start of any election cycle, nullifying the possibility of a civilian-led government. As Brian Klaas, a professor at the University College of London, reflected, “It’s a funny kind of “democracy” when a general needs to win just 25 percent of the elected seats to become prime minister, while his civilian rivals need to win a combined 75 percent of the elected seats to secure the same job.”

Next, the junta needed to give the farcical constitution a veneer of legitimacy by holding a national referendum. But with its obvious concessions to the military, the generals knew that it would be a tough sell to the public. So, in the run up to the 2016 referendum, the junta suppressed any efforts to mobilize opposition. Unsurprisingly, the referendum passed.

Then, the junta set its sights on winning Parliamentary elections, which, after years of delay, were finally held in March. In the months leading up it, the junta employed similar tactics to shut down opponents and silence critics. Perhaps most concerning, the royal palace — once Thailand’s best guarantor of stability and democracy — appeared far less capable or willing to hold the military in check as it has in the past.

Case in point: Thai Raksa Chart, until recently one of the largest pro-Thaksin parties in the race, announced in February that it would nominate the elder sister of the King, Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, as its candidate for prime minister. Although the princess had lost her official royal status when she married American Peter Jensen in 1972 and did not regain it when she divorced him in 1998 and returned to Thailand, her association with the Thai royal family remained clear. The party wouldn’t have been “insensitive or stupid enough to have put forward her nomination as the leader of one of the Thaksin parties without the prior approval of the palace,” one local expert on Thai politics tells me.

But in the face of strident opposition from the junta, that approval was withdrawn within the day. The palace — “either because it changed its mind or because it engaged in a Machiavellian double cross,” as this expert puts it — made an unprecedented public rebuke that called the nomination “improper and highly inappropriate.”

The junta saw an opportunity. It quickly referred the issue to the Constitutional Court, a conservative ally, which ruled that Thai Raksa Chart had attempted to undermine the neutrality of the royal family. Less than three weeks before the election, it dissolved Thai Raksa Chart altogether, banning its leaders from politics for the next decade and forcing more than 280 of its candidates to step down. To further discredit the party, the palace also stripped Thaksin of all his royal decorations. It was a stunning turnabout from just the month before, when the party seemed to have the tacit approval of the palace.

The junta took similar actions against another Thaksin ally, the Future Forward party, which had “surprised everyone, not least the military, by running on a firm anti-military program” as one local leader puts it. The junta filed criminal complaints against the party’s leader and deputy leader, serving them both a twenty-year ban from politics as well as five-year prison sentences. The junta combined these actions with an oppressive crackdown on political speech, including harsh laws regulating online political statements and campaign ads.

Remarkably, these moves couldn’t stop Future Forward from coming in third with over six million votes. In fact, “the unexpected success of the new Future Forward Party, their slate of ‘clean’ candidates new to politics, and the support they got from young voters in particular is a positive for the future,” one local analyst tells me. That makes Future Forward a logical partner as Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party tries to form a government — but that still will not be enough to overcome the junta’s advantage in the senate.

Most disturbingly, the Election Commission chose not to finalize the election results until after the May 9 coronation ceremonies. That left more time for the commission to revise the results according to a formula it hasn’t fully explained, and for the junta to continue its judicial assault on its opponents — starting with three more charges just added against Future Forward’s leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, including one for sedition. A campaign has also started to dissolve the party, on the grounds that its anti-junta stance is also “anti-monarchy.”

When the commission finally issued its results, the Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party had won the most constituency seats and the military-backed Palang Pracharath party received the most votes — but no party has secured a majority. As both parties fight to build a ruling coalition, the junta has used the commission to make the task as difficult as possible for Pheu Thai. “The explanation of the party list formula released by the Election Commission before the polls would have denied seats to many of the smaller parties,” explains Grant Peck in The Diplomat, whereas “the formula as applied [May 9] instead benefited them, at the apparent expense of parties allied with Pheu Thai.”

One sign the election reflects not just business as usual, but a new and dangerous phase in Thai democracy: Thai politics has become more about support for — or opposition to — the military. Since Thaksin’s rise to power, Thai politics has seemingly been driven by a deep schism between the rural poor on the one hand and the urban elite on the other. But as Scott Christensen explains in an analysis for the Brookings Institution, this election may signal that economic inequality may no longer be the most significant factor. “The narrative on Thai politics that has prevailed for nearly two decades needs to change,” writes Christensen. “Sentiment toward military rule now appears to be the more relevant issue defining the political divide.”

“The reactionary forces, the military and junta, using the guise of protecting the monarchy, are taking on and trying to sabotage the most vibrant pro-democracy forces,” a British writer and longtime observer of Thailand tells me. “By charging Thanathorn and whipping up right-wing hatred against him, the military is upping the stakes, dividing the country, and it could well end in civil unrest.” Another long-time friend, whose uncle was part of student protests that brought a violent response from the military in the 1970s, issued this haunting prediction: “It just takes one dead student and things will erupt.”

The Thai people will pay the biggest price for this turn toward dictatorship. But the consequences extend far beyond Bangkok. In a region that is variously facing instability (Myanmar), struggling to grow in a sustainable way (Indonesia), or dealing with outsize Chinese influence (Laos and Cambodia), Thailand has stood out as stable, democratic, economically-secure partner to the United States. But as Thailand’s junta reinforces its own power, an increasingly unstable and anti-democratic Thailand might well start to look more like Myanmar. That would be a huge loss for the region — and for U.S. interests.

Like Napoleon Bonaparte, Thaksin Shinawatra is in exile, albeit a self-imposed one, reportedly in Dubai. Unlike Napoleon, he’s not likely to ever return to his home country. For our sake, and for the sake of the Thai people, we can only hope that democracy hasn’t been exiled along with him.