This coming Sunday, Thailand is heading again to the polls. However, the specter of the military is ever-present, amidst former generals-cum-politicians competing to lead the country or via other ‘legal’ structures to ensure military power.
The 2019 general election turned Thailand from military rule to electoral authoritarianism. The coup leaders were able to maintain their power by manipulating the state bodies and electoral process to favor the pro-military political parties. Together with the 500 elected Members of Parliament (MPs), the temporary provision in the junta-drafted 2017 Constitution also grants the power to elect the Prime Minister (PM) to the junta-appointed 250 senators, who unanimously voted for their appointer, General Prayut Chan-o-cha. Since then, the Thai political landscape has drastically changed. Almost a decade under military rule has bred resentment among the Thai population, particularly in the younger generation, who led a 2020 movement calling for a return to democracy and making unprecedented demands for reform of the monarchy. As the years have passed and the 2023 general election approaches, the pro-military parties and military cronies have become deeply unpopular while the two top coup orchestrators, General Prayut and General Prawit Wongsuwan, have now parted ways to form their own respective parties. Meanwhile, almost every poll indicates that the opposition would emerge as the victor in the next election.
However, the military still retains a considerable amount of leverage over Thai politics. Aside from the state-sponsored political parties and the ever-looming threat of a coup, the following three institutional mechanisms the junta has put in place to skew the last election are still present:
- The Election Commission (EC) (whose commissioners were all appointed by the junta) combined incompetence and intentional fraud in 2019 to help propel General Prayut back to the PM position. After the poll closed, the reported result confusingly fluctuated over time and the EC also changed the seat calculation formula in favor of the pro-military parties.
- The Constitutional Court, whose members were appointed by the junta, has historically ruled in favor of the military. On the eve of the 2019 general election, it dissolved the Thai Raksachart Party for nominating the king’s sister as PM, and in 2020 dissolved one of the main opposition parties, the king’s sister as PM.
- The 250 appointed senators are still allowed to vote for the PM. The senators insisting on voting for a candidate from the pro-military parties despite not having a majority in the House of Representatives would form a minority government and bring Thailand to a political deadlock.
The 2023 Thai general election will be a key test to turn the country back on a democratic path.
Aside from the economic woes under the current government, at the top of the list of agendas for political parties are the drafting of a new constitution by the people, and the repeal or amendment of key laws that have been a major obstacle to freedom of expression and assembly. Until March 2023, at least three factors indicate that the coming elections are still strictly controlled by the old regime and they might find ways to maintain power. The following signs show that the coming situation is very worrying:
- The dissolution of Parliament happened on 20 March 2023, although the parliament was going to expire in due course on 23 March 2023. This is not an attempt to return power back to the people through the new election. Rather, it is a legal tactic to postpone the election for 7–12 days so that MPs and candidates can move to other parties.
- The election date was chosen to be on 14 May 2023, thus taking place during the period of final exams for university students. The date is also a week after long public holidays when it is inconvenient for people to travel back home (where they are registered) and cast their votes. This date is much worse than 7 May, the only possible election date if parliament had finished its term.
- According to the recently released polls, General Prayuth and General Prawit cannot gain popularity while their oppositions are likely to achieve more seats. Therefore, the usual free and fair election can only bring loss to the old regime.
From worst to the best case: possible scenarios
Possible scenarios of the election results are listed below. However, all of them are still at risk of intervention by outside powers, with none of the possible scenarios leading to democratic improvement if the military and allies are still trying to take control of the country.
Worst case #1:
The pro-democracy parties win more than 250 seats but below the 376 threshold and the senators insist on voting for a PM candidate from the pro-military parties to form a minority government in the House of Representatives. The almost instant collapse of the newborn government would lead to a political vacuum and provide an excuse for unconstitutional and undemocratic intervention (such as the Constitutional Court declaring the election void). This would revive the pro-democracy movement to the street – and even worse – the military could orchestrate a coup.
Worst case #2:
The pro-military parties win more than 250 seats and receive overwhelming support from the senators to form a government. Alternatively, the pro-democracy parties win more than 250 seats but still less than the 376 threshold and are forced to compromise with the pro-military faction. In this scenario, the military would be able to maintain the status quo of electoral authoritarianism and even strengthen its grip on power at the detriment of Thai democracy.
The pro-democracy parties win more than 250 seats and form a coalition government together. The senators concede to the popular will and vote for the PM candidate from one of the pro-democracy parties to surpass the 376-majority threshold of both houses.
Alternatively, the pro-democracy parties win a landslide victory picking at least 376 seats in which the senators’ votes are not required. In this scenario, Thailand would be back on track to democracy but the new popular government may risk antagonizing the armed forces and the conservative elite with undemocratic intervention looming.