Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has dissolved parliament as expected, ringing down the curtain on March 20 to prepare for general elections expected to be held sometime in May.
But what is unexpected is that the opposition Pheu Thai Party, the surrogate of ousted former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006) is looking more and more likely to have the numbers to govern, if in a coalition.
Prayuth, discarded by the army-backed Palang Pracharat after nine years in power, first as the head of the junta that took down a Thaksin-backed party headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, then as premier who rode to power with a bogus Constitution rigged to keep the military in charge, has had to take his chances with the tiny, newly-constituted Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party. He has managed to encourage the defection to his own party of a handful of high-ranking converts from other parties.
The odds appear against him unless the polls, never particularly reliable in Thailand, overstate Pheu Thai’s popularity. But he still has tricks up his sleeve. He only needs to win 25 MPS in the House to be nominated as PM. Once he has made the cut he can count on his hand-picked 250 senators and the former coalition partners to make a parliamentary majority of 375 to become PM.
“He has every means at his disposal to continue as PM, the election commission, the counter corruption commission, constitutional court and other state apparatus,” said a longtime political source. “Already the election commission is at work to try to help him realize his goal, by redrawing the constituency boundaries to the chagrin of the opposition parties. The election commission can also be counted upon to harass the opposition, namely Pheu Thai, by disqualifying the politicians and even dissolve the party.”
Palang Pracharat is now headed by Prawit Wongsuwong, the 77-year-old former army chief who was the architect of the 2014 coup that brought the army to power, the country’s 13th successful coup since 1936. That is a reminder that political power in Thailand too often grows out of the turret of a tank, if not the barrel of a gun, and that democracy reigns as long as the military and the royalty want it to.
The royalty, headed by the erratic King Maha Vajiralongkorn, also wields enormous power and could play an as-yet undetermined role. If it doesn’t, the story is the 73-year-old Thaksin, who has managed to run the political opposition for nearly 17 years without ever having set foot in the country. He is a telecoms billionaire who took power in 2001 with the Thai Rak Thai Party he invented, and became phenomenally popular for a series of populist measures designed to alleviate poverty in the rural northeast of the country, awakening the distrust of the Bangkok elites aligned with the royalty and the army.
In 2006 the military ended Thai Rak Thai’s reign while Thaksin was out of the country. Later, a criminal trial found him guilty of corruption and he wisely chose not to come home, holing up in Dubai aided by his US$2 billion fortune and running the opposition by remote control through three successive governments after the elites, aided by the military, used the courts to close them down.
His third surrogate, Pheu Thai, managed to wrest power back via elections in 2010, ruling via his sister Yingluck until 2014, until the army coup put an end to representative democracy and jailed or exiled many of his followers. Since that time, Thaksin has remained in Dubai, pulling the strings from afar as the military has managed to run governments that can only be described charitably as lackluster. The country’s education system, never cutting edge, has slipped backwards as the world has moved into the technological age. The royalty, under Vajiralongkorn, has had a stultifying effect on society through arguably the world’s most repressive lese majeste law.
Pheu Thai nearly was able to take power in 2019 when it gained a plurality in general elections, but was thwarted when Prayuth managed to cobble together a government with the aid of so-called “cobras” who switched parties to back Palang Pracharat and return him to power.
Since that time, the government has stumbled through revelations of corruption and perceived mishandling of the Covid-29 crisis, decimating the tourism industry, which in 2019, before the pandemic, employed nearly 12 percent of Thais and accounted for 11.9 percent of GDP as foreign tourists contributed Bt1.9 trillion (US$55.4 billion) in receipts annually to the treasury. As the economy stagnated, the military poured billions into the armed forces budget, which rose from Bt115 billion (US$3.35 billion) in 2006 at the time of the first coup to Bt233 billion (US$6.8 billion) in 2020, a 103 percent infusion despite the fact that Thailand has no perceived enemies to fight. The Army now has 1,100 generals, compared, for example, to 231 for the US Amy and 603 of general grade in the US military as a whole.
Against this backdrop of a stagnating economy and a bloated and deeply corrupt military, Pheu Thai is now headed by Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn, Yingluck also having been driven into exile by corruption charges following the 2014 coup that removed her from power. It must win a majority of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives, but must also cope with a Senate that is rigged to keep the military in power, with 194 of the 250-member upper house selected by the military, and the others from professional and social groups aligned with them and certain to stick with whatever the military wants to do. The upper house joins the house of representatives in electing the prime minister. Realistically, Pheu Thai thus needs 375 members to rule.
Although polls show Pheu Thai gaining in strength, it would likely need junior parties to form a coalition. Move Forward, reconstituted from the wreckage of Future Forward, a youth-oriented party put out of business by the malleable courts when it became too popular, is a likely ally. Some political analysts believe Pheu Thai, if close to taking power, might reach out to parties such as the Democrats, which hold a traditional base in the south of the country, as a suitor, or Bhumjaithai, which rules areas of the lower northeast although it is considered deeply corrupt and open to the drug trade on the Thai-Myanmar border. Both have a slippery hold on loyalty. Bhumjaithai leader Anuthin is the Health Minister who legalized cannabis, a popular policy among many, who are planting it as a cash crop. Bhumjaithai is a swing party, which could go with either the conservatives or with a Pheu Thai-led bloc depending on who offers what.
If a Pheu Tai coalition were to take power, would Thaksin return, along with Yingluck? He was sentenced to two years in prison in 2008 for illegally helping his wife buy government-owned property at a reduced price, and given five more years in 2020 for illegal stock transfers. Prudently, he stayed out of the country during the riot-filled period when Pheu Thai ruled previously. The criminal convictions against both Thaksin and Yingluck can’t be reversed. The appeals went all the way up to the highest court and those appeals are exhausted. So if either of them step on Thai soil, they would be arrested. The only way out is a royal pardon. Thaksin is said to think he can change the king’s mind, but that may be wishful thinking.
In any case, he seems to have operated successfully from Dubai, 4,900 km away, although there have been whispers of his presence in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Phnom Penh regularly.
That leaves Prayuth on the campaign trail for the first time, trying to pull his splinter party into success on the strength of his own coat-tails, his military tunic remaining in the closet. He is running third in the polls.
Maybe, however, old soldiers do fade away after all, in the words of Douglas MacArthur, unless once again the military and the elites find the prospect of a Shinawatra government, led from somewhere outside the country, too much to stomach, and once again engineer its defeat.
Source : Asia Sentinel