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Thailand's election: a new horizon for democracy?

The government formation currently underway in Thailand to determine the next prime minister is noted by outlets around the world as one of the most important in Thai history. The May 2023 parliamentary election was only the second to be held since the military coup in 2014 and the first since the widespread youth protests in 2020 and 2021. But the election may have been doomed to fail to fulfill a democratic outcome from the start, as the election process outlined by the current constitution favors junta power.


The parliament in Thailand is composed of a lower house and a senate. The lower house refers to the 500-member House of Representatives, and the Senate has 250 members. A candidate for the premiership needs to secure 376 votes from the combined House and Senate to win.


In the May election, the Move Forward Party outperformed even optimistic election, projections winning 151 seats. The runner up was populist party Pheu Thai, led by the Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of the founder of the Pheu Thai party and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Shinawatra was favored as the winner prior to the election.


While the Move Forward Party garnered the plurality of seats from the lower house, Pita additionally needed to win the joint vote from the house and senate, the latter of which is composed of members appointed by the junta.


Pita failed on July 13th to secure that vote, with 198 lawmakers abstaining and 82 lawmakers voting against Pita. Now, despite the Move Forward Party’s success in the general election, the party will likely not be a part of the new Thai government.


Pita also faced an attack against his personal bid for the premiership. Soon after the May election, a candidate from the Palang Pracharath party, which is backed by the military, filed a complaint with the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The charge alleged that Pita failed to list a stock shareholding on a statutory declaration of his assets, and on 19 July, the conservative-controlled Constitutional Court suspended Pita.


The Constitutional Court could still ban Pita from politics altogether or even dissolve the party itself. The court is caught between tamping down on the Move Forward’s outspoken criticism of the lèse majesté law and sparking renewed widespread protests, as it did back in 2020 when it dissolved the Move Forward Party’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party. At the time, hundreds of youth were arrested under the lèse majesté law for anti-government and monarchy reform protests.


The lèse majesté law is at the heart of reform efforts in Thailand. It’s a law that makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the monarch, and its application to prosecute individuals has skyrocketed since ultra-royalist generals seized power in 2014.


The military coup in 2014 was the second ousting of an elected government in single decade. The first was in 2006, in a military coup against Thaksin Shinawatra.


In 2017, the junta held a referendum on a junta penned constitution. The referendum ultimately favored the constitution, and it was signed into law in 2017 by the monarch whose powers were strengthened by that very constitution.


Criticism of the constitution was effectively outlawed in the time leading up to the referendum through a law that enabled the junta government to execute fines or prison sentences of up to 10 years for what the military determined to be “the dissemination of false information.”


The constitution allowed the military to appoint the members of the Senate during the first five years after its adoption. Members of the military and its supporters were also appointed to run a newly formed national reform steering assembly. The assembly has the power to dismiss the government and institute military rule, with Rodion Ebbighausen of The DW writing that such a policy effectively means “a coup mechanism is written directly into the constitution.”


The first election after the coup took place in 2011 despite complaints of cheating and vote-buying. Pheu Thai won the most seats in the 2019 general elections, but the party was unable to form a government. Instead, the Senate backed Prayut, the former military general who led a military coup, as prime minister.


This year’s government building cycle is poised to end in a similar outcome in that it falls short of delivering radical progress or a result that reflects a truly democratic process. Since Pita’s suspension, The Pheu Thai party is now taking the lead in building a provisional government. While Pheu Thai and Move Forward were but a few weeks ago in talks to build a coalition together, it’s become increasingly apparent that the Move Forward Party will be squeezed out entirely.


During the lead up to the election, the Pheu Thai was careful not to join calls to reform the lèse majesté law. The Pheu Thai is now banking on its more moderate optics and has been meeting with representatives from military backed parties.


The turn of events is somewhat surprising, since the Pheu Thai and the conservative parties “have been in a political war since 2006” and would thus “represent a historic shift.”


The Thai election thus far has offered an important beacon in that it’s demonstrated that the Thai people are using democratic processes to attempt to secure a democratic future. The shortcomings of those attempts, however, show that the more instrumental factor in the immediate future of the country’s political leadership is the constitutional basis for how elections are conducted and how the results are ratified. The ultimate result of Thailand’s election may prove to be historic, but it will most likely be because of a landmark change in the dynamics between its leading parties, rather than the ushering in of an era of meaningful reform.


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