Voters in Thailand resoundingly reject military rule

Outgoing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, with US Ambassador Mary Jo A. Bernardo-Aragon in 2015

On May 14th, Thailand voters came out resoundingly against the nine-year military rule by casting their votes for anti-junta parties. The newly formed Move Forward Party (MFP) became the biggest party in parliament by winning 151 out of 500 lower house seats. Pheu Thai, which had seen electoral victory for over 20 years and was regarded as the favourite to win again, had only managed 141 seats and came in second. Pheu Thai had managed to retain only one seat in the capital Bangkok, with MFP sweeping the remaining 33 seats. Additionally, MFP also made inroads in the rural northeastern part of Thailand, where Pheu Thai used to enjoy comfortable electoral support.

Outgoing Prime Minister and 2014 coup leader, Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s new party, United Thai Nation (UTN), could only gain 36 seats. The former ruling party Pralang Pracharat lost 76 seats and came in fourth with only 40 seats. With the highest ever recorded voter turnout of 75.22%, the election results clearly express the masses’ desire to get rid of the military rule which was plaguing the nation since 2014.

Formation of government

Although the leader and Prime Minister candidate of MFP, Pita Limjaroenrat, has come out to announce an eight-party coalition with Pheu Thai and other former government opposition parties, it is still unclear if it will be successful in forming a government. The coalition could muster 313 seats out of 500 lower house seats, and in most forms of parliamentary democracy around the world, they would have the majority to form a government. However, under the constitutional amendment in 2017 by the military, the Prime Minister of Thailand will need majority support, which includes the elected lower house members and another 250 military-appointed senators.

These senators were directly appointed by the military bureaucracies in order to defend their interests. In the 2019 general elections, all 250 senators unanimously voted for the second largest party, Pralang Pracarat’s candidate Prayut Chan-o-cha, while the majority of the lower house went to the leader of Future Forward Party Thanathorn. Despite losing the election and with no lower house majority, Prayut had managed to become Thai PM, formed a cabinet, and continued to strengthen his position. However, Prayut had a rocky first term in office, as the government faced a strong ‘anti-junta’ opposition block in Parliament while the Covid pandemic devastated the Thai economy.

As is, the MFP-led coalition is at the mercy of the military-appointed senators to secure the Prime Ministership and to form a government. They will need at least 63 senators to cast their votes for MFP leader Pita to become PM. In the days following the election results, various senators gave contradictory statements. Some simply stated that they will respect the will of the people and respect their mandate while some have come out strongly against the MFP leader. Many of the senators are clearly against reforming or abolishing the Lèse-majesté law which was the main electoral campaign promise of the MFP [note: Lèse-majesté is ‘an offence against the dignity of a ruling head of state, traditionally a monarch but now more often a president’].

Due to this, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) drafted between the eight-party coalition led by MFP does not contain any commitment to amend or abolish Section 112 of the Thai Criminal code which penalises any individuals or groups that criticises the monarchy. Except for MFP, the other parties in the coalition are also not keen on opposing the Lèse-majesté law which is still seen as controversial amongst some sections of the conservative society, although very popular among the youth population.

Military and the monarchy

The experience of two separate coup d’états (2006 and 2014) and five-year-long military rule, without any semblance of democracy, had an enormous impact on Thai society, especially on the youth. Thai people are resentful towards the military bureaucracy, which not only oppresses the democratic rights of the people, but also reformed the constitution in such a way as to guarantee themselves lasting political power. The democratic mass movements and protests of 2019 and 2020 were brutally crushed and many of the movement’s leaders were arrested and tried under the Lèse-majesté law. Some of them were sentenced to decades of imprisonment.

These experiences had also opened up debates and public discussions about the role of the monarchy which supports the military throughout the history of Thailand, especially after the death of the popular King Bhumibol in 2016, Thai people have become more willing to take risks to criticise the monarchy which seems to be oblivious to the suffering of the masses. King Vajiralongkorn who replaced King Bhumibol is widely viewed as an irresponsible individual without any traditional Thai values. His luxurious and excessive lifestyle is widely publicised and has become tabloid news around the world and a national embarrassment. At the moment, traditions such as hanging the King’s picture in restaurants and business establishments or giving a standing ovation at the cinema theatres to commemorate the King are not prevalent, as they once were.

The fall in votes for the two military-based parties is a reflection of the mood of the masses that are no longer willing to tolerate not only the undemocratic military elites but also the royal institutions which had continuously given their support to the army. People are beginning to realise that both the military bureaucracy and the monarchy are working together in order to maintain their dominance over the Thai economy and are ready to curtail people’s rights at any moment.

At the current junction, although still very powerful, the military is losing its legitimacy and its grip on the government. Even after extensively altering the constitution to favour them, the military elites are not able to secure electoral dominance. The formation of a second military-based party, the United Thai Nation, led by the former Prime Minister, Prayuth, is also an indication that there are internal divisions amongst the army elites. In this situation, it will be difficult for the military representatives to ignore the election results and continue to assert their power over the will of the people. Still, a formation of a minority government led by the military is not completely out of the question.

However, it is also well known from the history of Thailand that the military will sometimes take a step back and vacate themselves from politics temporarily in order to organise a military coup d’état at a more suitable time. Both Takshin and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from Pheu Thai, were allowed to become the PM only to be overthrown later. In both cases, the military made allegations of corruption against the Pheu Thai leaders to justify their forceful removal.

In 2020, the Thai Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party (FFP), which came in third in the 2019 general elections under allegations that the party sought to overthrow the monarchy. FFP leader, Thanathorn, was also convicted of election fraud and was disqualified from the parliament. This incident triggered a massive protest and democratic movements led by students, democratic activists, ordinary citizens, and trade unions across major cities in Thailand. The then Thai government under Prayuth had only managed to suppress the uprising by using extreme force, prosecution, and imposing Covid lockdown policies.

Similarly, the Constitutional Court under the control of the military and the monarchy could press charges on the Move Forward Party, which is in reality the de facto successor of the dissolved FFP. Furthermore, MFP leader, Pita, is currently facing allegations of electoral fraud for holding shares in a media firm. According to the Thai Electoral Commission (EC), candidates could be barred from contesting in elections if they are found to be holding shares in a media company. The caretaker Deputy PM, Wissanu, last week, went as far as to announce that depending on the outcome of the EC investigation of Pita and other MFP MPs, the May 14th elections could be nullified.

Anti-junta coalition

The eight-party coalition led by MFP and Pheu Thai is touted as the pro-democracy coalition and represents the will of the people. In reality, this coalition is just an anti-junta coalition and only wants to remove the military from the political arena. In terms of democracy, this coalition is only interested in building a parliamentary representative system that is similar to other developed nations in order to liberalise the economy. They represent a section of the national bourgeois who are struggling with the military for decades to take control of the Thai economy.

Similar to the Shinawatra business dynasty which has enormous influence over the Pheu Thai party, the leadership of MFP is also made out of rich influential families and big business owners. MFP leader Pita himself was the CEO of his family-run agro-food company and was the Executive Director of the multinational Grab Inc. in Thailand. His parents and relatives had served in the government under Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006) and have close ties with political elites.

Even if Pita succeeds in becoming the prime minister, reforms the constitution, and removes the military from politics, it will only result in minor changes in terms of improvement in the living standards of the masses. Thailand is currently undergoing economic calamity, as it struggles to emerge from the effects of the Covid pandemic. Besides Myanmar, Thailand is the only nation in Southeast Asia that has not managed to return to a pre-pandemic level of economic growth. The household debt is 86% of GDP and the unemployment rate is on the rise. Almost 50% of the total workforce is made out of unofficial workers relying on small stalls and small-scale vendors. During the pandemic, up to 80% of the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) in Thailand were hit with a lack of liquidity and had to close permanently. Many of those small economies are yet to fully recover and are putting a strain on a large number of the working class.

Unfortunately, the MoU signed by the anti-junta coalition does not reflect on the immediate need to address the conditions of the masses. It contains 23 points of vague pledges to reduce inequality, increase the living standards of the masses, fight corruption, and allow same-sex marriage and such. However, MFP’s and Pheu Thai’s electoral promises, such as higher minimum wage, subsidies, debt relief, and so on, were not concretely spelled out in the agreement. It is also unclear as to how exactly they are planning to bring the so-called democracy and remove the military elites from the Thai political system where their predecessors have continuously failed to do so. Besides that, in the current global economic uncertainty, it is also unclear as to how this coalition could find a way out of the crisis within the limitations of neoliberal economic structure which are dependent on the global capitalist economy.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the Pheu Thai leadership would not form an alliance with the pro-military parties in order to secure the PM post for their own candidate. At the moment, they have thrown their support behind Pita from the MFP by agreeing to some political concessions for themselves. But if the opportunity opens up for them to become the next government, Pheu Thai could be persuaded to betray their own voter base and side with the army elites.

‘People power’  

In both the 2006 and 2014 military coup d’état, the people of Thailand showed resilience and courage to go against military oppression by flooding the streets in protests. However, the leadership of Pheu Thai which had comfortable electoral support from the voters had failed on both occasions to lead the disgruntled masses to build an effective fight back and overthrow the military from power. This is because the Pheu Thai leaders themselves are afraid of the masses who could be emboldened to go further and challenge the entire capitalist system, as a whole. The masses could build their own forces and political representatives based on the struggle of the working class and the poor and demand a substantive change to the economy and politics of Thailand, which the elites from both spectrums are not ready to face.

MFP and Pheu Thai leaders, despite their rhetoric and promises, will not be able to harness the power of the masses to transform Thailand politics, economy, and society. They are looking for political manoeuvring and deals in order to secure their control over the government, even at the expense of watering down their own policies, demands, and promises to the masses. Any social movement which could develop based on the conduct of the military will be used by the MFP and its allies to secure political positions. Genuine democracy and welfare for the masses will not be on their agenda.

The Thai working class, students, and rural population need a new mass party with a perspective to deliver the Thai masses out of the clutches of both the military elites and the devastating economic crisis. This representative should put forth a concrete demand of improving the lives of the working class and the poor and build an alternative socialist economic system, which is based on the needs of the masses, not the greed of the capitalist class. Thai students, the working class, and the rural poor had shown tremendous will to fight for their own future. If a strong and clear working-class leadership armed with a socialist perspective could be built, the masses of Thailand will have a path towards achieving genuine democratic and economic rights which will lift them out of misery and propel them towards a fairer and equitable society.

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June 2023