Thailand’s Groundhog Day

The recent election replayed a similar vote from 1992. And if the historical precedent is any guide, Thai politics are about to get even messier.

Thailand’s “Red Shirts,” a group that began in support of Thaksin Shinawatra and against the military government, protest in Bangkok on March 31. (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
Thailand’s “Red Shirts,” a group that began in support of Thaksin Shinawatra and against the military government, protest in Bangkok on March 31. (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

For seasoned observers of Thai politics, the sense of déjà vu was undeniable. The election at the end of March was nearly a scene-by-scene replay of a highly contentious election 27 years ago. In February 1991, a military junta led by Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon and calling itself the National Peacekeeping Council seized power. After rewriting the constitution, junta leaders who had come to office promising to crack down on corruption struck up a not-so-clandestine alliance with the newly formed Samakkhi Tham Party—a collection of discredited politicians who controlled formidable networks of local canvassers and vote buyers. Samakkhi Tham swept the election on March 22, 1992, and became the country’s largest party. It proceeded to install Suchinda as prime minister.

The general may have hoped that he would be in office for at least 10 years. But Suchinda, as haughty as he was incompetent, lasted just 48 days. Troops opened fire on unarmed protestors during huge demonstrations against his premiership. More than 50 people died in what became known as “Bloody May.” Suchinda was summoned to the palace on May 20, where he received a televised dressing-down by King Bhumibol. He grudgingly resigned four days later.

Fast forward a few decades. In 2014, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a military coup. He subsequently appointed himself prime minister under the military junta that now rules the country. In 2017, a military-ordained constitution introduced an arcane new election system and complicated parliamentary rules that allowed for nonpoliticians to assume the premiership. Politicians close to the junta set up a new political party known as Phalang Pracharat with the goal of ensuring that Prayuth could stay on as prime minister after this year’s election.

Unfortunately for Prayuth, there were a few surprises. Rather than the usual standoff between Pheu Thai Party, which is aligned with the controversial self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and the Democrat Party, the country’s conservative opposition, the March 2019 election proved to be a three-way contest among Phalang Pracharat, Pheu Thai, and a new party, the Future Forward Party.

Although the official results have yet to be announced, Pheu Thai, which is opposed to any continuation of the junta’s political dominance, became the largest single party in the new parliament with 137 seats. But in many parts of the country, it lost ground to the strongly anti-military and progressive-leaning Future Forward Party, led by a 40-year-old celebrity business tycoon, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Future Forward generated enormous interest among younger voters and won third place out of 81 parties in the election—to general amazement.

Meanwhile, Phalang Pracharat, benefiting from massive funding and considerable support from state officials around the country, apparently secured the largest share of the popular vote but only 97 constituency seats. Support for the 73-year-old Democrat Party collapsed as conservative voters defected to its military-aligned rival. In fact, the Democrats, led by Oxford University-educated former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, failed to gain a single seat in their Bangkok strongholds.

All this spells trouble for Thai politics. In recent years, the Pheu Thai and the Democrat parties served as electoral buffers to mediate between the country’s core military-run institutions and the Thai masses. Now those buffers are stretched thinner, which means that renewed clashes between military and anti-military forces are more likely.

Already, Apirat Kongsompong, an army commander whose father, Sunthorn, staged the 1991 coup with Suchinda, has been ramping up his threats against Future Forward. Rumors are flying across the country that the electoral commission will use the confusing and untested rules for allocating party list votes to divert seats away from opposition parties. A student-led nationwide signature campaign to impeach the five-member election commission is gathering pace.

Nothing is likely to happen before next month’s royal coronation, in which Maha Vajiralongkorn, known as King Rama X, will formally succeed his father, who died in 2016. After those festivities, members of the elected lower house (500 seats) and the unelected Senate (250 seats) will jointly choose the next prime minister. Since the junta appoints the Senate, it’s likely that Prayuth will receive a third of the collective votes more or less by default. Still, if half of the lower house holds firm against him, he could easily lose a no-confidence vote and would be unable to pass any legislation.

That’s why, following the election, Pheu Thai was quick to announce a prospective seven-party ruling coalition, which could control at least 255 seats. At the same time, though, it is certain that pragmatically oriented small and medium-sized parties are being courted—perhaps even paid—to join a pro-military coalition government led by Prayuth.

Much has changed in Thailand since 1992, but much has stayed the same. The Royal Thai Army—less a war-fighting machine than a uniformed bureaucracy—retains a sense of entitlement that borders on the delusional. The highly polarized citizenry oscillates between apparent acceptance of the status quo and dramatic outpouring of collective anger. The central question of Thai politics remains one of sovereignty and legitimacy: Does power reside with the people or with the military and the monarchy?

The latest Thai election was a referendum on that question, but so far the result is inconclusive. If Prayuth is able to succeed where Suchinda failed, he will have demonstrated that the military can deploy a combination of force, constitutional engineering, and electoral machinations to secure lasting control. Yet if elected members of the parliament unite to ensure that one of their own becomes prime minister, the military junta could soon become another chapter in Thailand’s tortuous political history.

If past Thai political debacles teach us anything, it is that winning an election is really just the beginning. A military figure who lacks enough popular legitimacy to occupy the premiership is likely to find that Thailand rapidly becomes ungovernable. Whatever the final results of March’s vote and the subsequent prime ministerial selection process, a renewed desire for political openness and an end to military rule is palpable across Thailand. Those who dream of taking Thailand back to the dysfunctional politics of previous decades should remember what befell Suchinda.

Duncan McCargo is the director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen. He is the co-author of Future Forward: The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party.

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