Will Prayut deliver a Thai election in 2018

The Thai military government said it will hold an election at the end of 2018. But does this mean a return to democracy for Thailand?

By Oliver Ward

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha insisted Thailand would return to democracy with democratic elections in 2018. Suvit Maesincee, speaking on behalf of the prime minister’s office, said, “democracy or democratisation is the next step for Thailand.”

Prayut’s government initially planned elections for 2015. That was now three years ago. Thailand has still not held elections. Is there anything to suggest that Prayut will follow through with his most recent election promise? Or will they fall victim to more delays like previous election promises?

The EU has already resumed political engagement with Thailand

As an incentive for Prayut to press on with the return to democracy, the European Union (EU) announced it would resume “political contacts at all levels” with the Thai government. The bloc severed political engagement with the military government three years ago after the coup.

The EU is an important trading partner to Thailand. The move will be welcome news to Prayut’s government. Nations who opposed Thailand’s lack of democracy have disengaged politically.  As a result, Thailand’s annual trade has declined since 2014.

Sources: Atlas, WTEx, TW

Trade with the EU shrank by 9.6% between 2013 and 2016. This is a dent in Thailand’s trade balance as the EU make up almost 10% of Thailand’s total trade. The EU is Thailand’s third largest trading partner after China and Japan.

Source: Nikkei

The shrink in EU-Thai trade was because the generalised scheme of preferences (GSP) expired in 2015. No new scheme replaced it. Under the GSP, Thailand enjoyed reduced tariffs or tariff-free exports to the EU on car parts, meats, seafood, textiles, precious minerals, and rubber products.

When the scheme expired, Thai exporters had to pay US$2.2 billion more in increased tariffs each year. The Thai government entered negotiations with the EU for a free trade agreement (FTA) under former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013. The agreement would replace the expired GSP and bring back lower tariffs.

These negotiations ended when the military seized control of the country in 2014. The resumption of political engagement with the EU will allow Prayut to resume negotiations for reduced-tariff trade.

The EU has acted prematurely

The EU has jumped the gun on resuming political interaction with the Thai government. The move has relieved the EU of its leverage to ensure Thailand returns to democracy. Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University believes the move is a signal of the EU putting economic interests ahead of its pro-democracy and pro-human rights interests. “The Western world is focussing more on economic interests than human rights. This may delay the democratic process in Thailand,” he said.

Prayut is in no rush to hold the election in 2018. Especially with the EU resuming political engagement with Prayut’s government before any election takes place. There is already an indication that Prayut will delay the elections again. Prayut’s government has still not lifted the restrictions on political campaigning. If the military government has any intention of planning elections for 2018, it must lift the restriction very soon. If it is not, we can assume the promise of a November 2018 election is another empty one.

Even with an election, the new constitution means the military will retain significant power

The EU’s decision appears even more concerning considering the contents of the new constitution charter. In early 2017, King Vajiralongkorn ratified the 20th charter. It allows soldiers, judges and bureaucrats to veto decisions from the House of Representatives.

Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. strategist Marc Chandler explained the changes. “The constitution basically guarantees a controlling stake for the military in any future governments, as the entire 250-seat Senate will be appointed by the military,” he said, adding, “as such, we see very little in the way of policy shifts under the incoming government”.

As such, any elections in 2018 are more like an attempt to internationally legitimise Thai military control, than a return to real democracy. Old military elites retain the power to overrule elected politicians.

But Prayut does not need to usher in a return to democracy. He just needs to appear to do so to ease international trade restrictions. The EU’s decision to gradually restore normal political relations with Thailand is an indicator that Pryaut’s pursuit of faux-democracy is working.

Prayut will likely defer elections once again. Public dissent is still at a manageable level, and the EU has indicated it values the economic benefits of Thailand more than Thailand’s return to democracy. Under the new constitution, an election would only be a symbolic gesture. Even so, the country will have to wait for even this small democratic gesture a little while longer.