What will Thailand’s opposition look like in one year’s time?

Photo: Sodacan/CC BY-SA 3.0

Thailand looks set for a return to civilian-led democracy, although the new constitution that will help them get there could actually put more power into the hands of the military.

By Victoria Wah, edited by John Pennington

Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a spokesman for Thailand’s prime minister’s office, announced that the military government plans to hold elections in 2017. He added that “As far as the government is concerned, we are on track with the roadmap (to a fully functioning democracy). The [National Legislative Assembly] NLA’s opinions are their own.”

This comment came after Somjet Boonthanom, a member of the National Legislative Assembly, said that Thailand’s 2017 general election will be rescheduled for March or April 2018. This delay is due to the long period taken to pass the new constitution and new laws.

Following legislative amendments to the constitution, the King has three months to approve the changes. Once the King endorses the constitution, election and political party laws can take up to eight months to be passed. Elections will then occur five months after those laws are passed. Somjet said, “Overall, the process could take a maximum of 17 months.”

The military junta seeks to create a new constitution that will kick start Thailand’s so-called transition to democracy. Yet, the government’s promise of a more democratic Thailand is overdue. The ouster of Yingluck Shinawatra, the previous prime minister of Thailand and the installation of a military government headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha only led to former military rule.

Doubts linger about the constitution’s effect on cracking down on corruption

Public doubts linger around this constitution and its ability to crack down on corruption. Thaksin Shinawatra, the previous prime minister of Thailand whom the military junta ousted from office, criticised the new constitution. He said, “The draft constitution is [a] bad constitution; I don’t even know if we can compare [it] to North Korea.” His comment sums up the beliefs held by major political parties, that the new constitution will only cement the military’s hold on Thailand’s democracy.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said that the passing of the constitution “reinforces the trend, not just in Thailand but worldwide, in the popular disenfranchisement with politicians, money politics, corruption”. He added that “The military has been astute to capitalise and exploit this popular will against the political class. They had effective propaganda in demonising politicians as being corrupt and corruption being the root of Thailand’s problems.”

In fact, the constitution will give the military more power to abuse than to solve corruption. Transparency International, a non-governmental organisation, reported that a high risk of corruption existed in the armed forces. Furthermore, Thailand’s score in the Corruption Perception Index dropped from 38 points in 2015 to 35 points in 2016. Worsened corruption in Thailand was linked to the political turmoil that the new constitution will only exacerbate.

Clauses in the new constitution are worrying

Clauses within the military-drafted constitution fuel these worries. It calls for a military-appointed 250-seat senate that will check the powers of lawmakers. The senate will serve an advisory role and step in for a joint session with the House of Representatives when there are problems within that House.

The constitution also allows for an unelected prime minister to take power in the event of a political crisis. For this to occur, over 250 members of parliament must support the motion with subsequent joint approval by the lower house and the senate. These clauses empower the militia to control elected government officers to the extent of replacing them should elected officials to refuse to govern according to the military’s terms.

Surprisingly, The Election Commission showed that an overwhelming proportion of 61.4%, voted for the constitution. It revealed overwhelming public support for a constitution that could further entrench military rule and deepen the political divide.

Overwhelming public support for the constitution is misleading

Those statistics are far from the whole truth. There was only a 59% voter turnout from roughly 50 million eligible voters with 94% of votes counted. The level of support shown for the constitution does not fully represent the views of the Thai public.

Furthermore, the military created a climate of fear leading up to the election that inevitably induced the public into voting in their favour. Open discussions about the constitution were banned and criticism of the draft was made punishable by law. Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Thailand, said that such an atmosphere, “does not allow Thai voters to make an informed choice.”

This great political divide has impacted Thailand and much now rests on reconciliation talks

Political conflicts between military-backed royalists and populists have negatively impacted Thailand’s foreign direct investments and tourism industry. As a result, the country’s economy has slowed. The Bank of Thailand reported that Thailand’s economic growth rate steadily decreased from 5.4% in 2010 to 3.1% in 2016.

Thailand has the opportunity to return to political and economic stability. Reconciliation talks between the military and opposition parties could reduce future conflicts. Four panels assist with the reconciliation process; a high-ranking military officer heads each panel comprising other non-political distinguished guests.

However, reconciliation talks can only go so far. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said that the conflicting parties invited to provide opinions for the reconciliation agreement would have some degree of freedom to voice any concerns so long as they were not against the constitution and had the potential to lead to unrest. These talks may not be constructive if the opposition parties are prevented from fully expressing their concerns.

If the talks are successful, they could lay foundations for a stronger Thailand

If these talks are successful, Thailand’s political and economic position may improve. The Bank of Thailand already predicts that the country’s economic growth rate in 2017 will rise to 3.4% – an optimistic sign that they will provide a spark for Thailand’s future.

The upcoming reconciliation talks are crucial as they could end Thailand’s longstanding political and economic turmoil. Yet the talks do not include discussions about the recent constitution. Opposition parties cannot stop the passage of the new constitution, which they criticise for side-lining anti-corruption, suppressing democracy, and elevating military rule. Despite the public’s half-hearted support for it, the constitution will be created. Regardless of whether elections are held this year or next year, the military has more power to gain from the constitution. The military’s promise of a democratic nation is built on sand.