On March 24, Thailand will return to the polls, nearly five years after the coup on May 22, 2014, that removed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and brought General Prayuth Chan-ocha to power.
Although the elections would appear to promise a return to democracy, many in Thailand are not getting their hopes up for these upcoming elections. The country has changed since Prayuth seized power, and these changes will most likely render the vote a mere formality instead of marking an end to military rule. Just a few years ago, few would have predicted such a situation.
In the 15 years before the 2014 coup, Thailand had experienced an unprecedented political awakening. A period of mass mobilization started in 2001 with the election of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, and culminated in enormous mass demonstrations with people wearing red shirts in support of Shinawatra and yellow shirts in support of the opposition, which took place without interruption between 2008 and 2014.
Since Prayuth seized power, however, the military government has managed, against all odds, to beat back the wave of public participation by banning public meetings; closing newspapers, radio and television stations; and persecuting activists from both sides, by means both legal and outside the law.
Thus, in just five years, Thailand has gone from being the model for democratization in Southeast Asia to ranking at the bottom, its freedom indices dropping in 2019 to the same level as in neighboring Myanmar, which is just a few years out of a military dictatorship that lasted over 50 years. Furthermore, the elimination of mass political activities was not the only change that happened in Thailand over the last five years. While Prayuth ruled the country, beloved King Bhumibol died in October 2016, and was succeeded by his son Vajiralongkorn, a jetsetting figure who many thought would be more interested in gala dinners than in politics.
However, since his accession to the throne, the new king has shown just how much these views were mistaken. Vajiralongkorn has proven not only highly sensitive to the political dynamics of the country, but even a Machiavellian figure in the pursuit of his plans. Right after he took up the throne, the new king removed all of his father’s closest advisers from office, even arresting some of them; he consolidated his direct control over the revenues of the very wealthy Crown Property Bureau; he independently named a new Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism, a position left vacant since 2013 and which has a powerful symbolic value; and he peopled the royal council with generals close to him, solidifying his symbiotic relationship with the highest ranks of the army.
This privileged relationship has led to the promulgation in 2017 of a new constitution defining the institutional framework in which the elections will be held on March 24, with a structure that makes it de facto impossible to create a parliamentary majority and install a government without the support of the military or the royal palace.
According to the new constitution, the parliament will be composed of a Senate chosen entirely by the military junta and a House of Representatives chosen through elections. This means that any opposition party or coalition must obtain at least 75% of the popular vote—something that has never happened before in Thailand’s history—to achieve a majority in Parliament. Even after such an extraordinary electoral victory, the army could still veto any candidate for Prime Minister through a commission, the so-called “National Ethics Assembly,” responsible for vetting the candidates for Prime Minister, which has the right to reject anyone whom it deems “morally unfit” to lead the country.
As part of this rigged game, in which General Prayuth is both a player and the referee, the country has seen one of the most absurd campaigns in its history. This is saying a lot for a country that in recent years has seen a prostitution tycoon run for parliament on an anti-corruption platform and a prime minister removed for taking part in a cooking TV show.
At first, there were five major parties in contention: Palang Pracharat, a new party created by the military; the Democrat Party, the oldest party in the country, which—contrary to what one might expect from its name—remains strongly conservative and pro-monarchy; Pheu Thai, the latest version of the party linked to the Shinawatra family; Future Forward, a new party headed by a young billionaire which is trying to appeal particularly to a younger and progressive electorate; and, finally, Thai Raksa Chart, a minor party close to the Shinawatra clan.
Against all expectations, the latter ended up making more waves than any of the others. On Feb. 7, Thai Raksa Chart announced that its candidate for Prime Minister would be Princess Ubol Ratana, the king’s sister and a famous Thai actress and influencer.
The news sent the military into a frenzy, forced to consider for the first time the possibility of their defeat and the difficulty of an election campaign in which their main rival would be protected by the law of lèse-majesté and therefore above all criticism or debate, on pain of three to 15 years of imprisonment. Showing again his affinity for the military, King Vajiralongkorn hurried to resolve the impasse in less than 24 hours by forbidding his sister to enter politics and setting the stage for the dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart, which was approved on March 7 by the Constitutional Court.
After they got rid of their only real adversary, the regime’s repressive impulses were trained on Future Forward, which has become very popular among the youngest voters in the country, precisely those least likely to support the military party.
Once again, a court came to Prayuth’s aid, and three of Future Forward’s leaders are now under investigation for cybercrimes, accused of having “spread false information” in a series of posts on Facebook. Their court hearing will be held two days after the election, and may prove useful to Prayuth in the unlikely event that it would be possible, with Future Forward’s votes, to set up a government that would stand in opposition to the military.
Looking at what is happening in Thailand, one might conclude that Prayuth has read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and is setting up these March 24 elections under the principle “everything must change so that everything might stay the same.” The strategy is clear: to open the polls as part of an institutional, media and judicial system that would make it impossible to install a government in opposition to the military regime. Thus, the regime will remain in power and add the final capstone to the constitutional authoritarianism that has been set up by Prayuth over the past five years: the claim to electoral legitimacy.