Thailand’s left will likely see significant wins in next week’s elections, despite a court ban on a key opposition party. As the varied opposition parties are still comparatively strong, the court’s ban has accomplished little but to undermine the elections in favour of preserving the status quo.
A major Thai political party was dissolved by the country’s Constitutional Court on March 7th for its nomination of Princess Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate in the upcoming elections. The court banned the leaders of the Thai Raksa Chart opposition party from politics for 10 years, calling their nomination of the princess “hostile to the constitutional monarchy.” The court claims the party violated Thai laws that mandate the royal family remain above Thai politics.
The ban against Thai Raksa Chart is a blow to Thailand’s pro-reform faction affiliated with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the leftist red shirt movement. But Thai voters are looking for a way out of the political and economic quagmire of the current junta and the opposition will still see significant wins despite the ban. Along with Pheu Thai, Thai Raksa Chart is one of the two main pro-reform parties with significant popular backing.
The main impact of the court’s ruling is that it’s shown voters the political establishment is willing to disenfranchise some of them in order to maintain its grip on power. The opposition will likely recover from the loss, but it doesn’t bode well for the perceived legitimacy of the elections on March 24.
The opposition may still win as the military government focuses on stability
Before the nomination of the princess, Pheu Thai’s leaders had already created several smaller parties to field candidates in the constituencies where Thai Raksa Chart was expected to win. Thai Raksa Chart voters can now shift their support to other parties where possible.
But Pheu Thai still has no candidates on the ballot in 101 of Thailand’s 350 electoral constituencies. In the constituencies where Thaksin proxies have no candidates on the ballot, Thai Raksa Chart is now pushing a “vote no” strategy. According to the constitution, if the “no” votes in a constituency outnumber the votes for any winning candidate the voting results are annulled. The Election Commission will then hold a new round of voting in which Pheu Thai or another party could field candidates with the support of Thai Raksa Chart voters.
With Thai Raksa Chart now dissolved, the pro-reform left consists of Pheu Thai, Pheu Tham, and Pheu Chart. The new Future Forward and Seri Ruam Thai parties are also in the pro-reform camp, but they don’t represent a continuation of Shinawatra politics. There’s also a small list of parties, including the Democrat Party, that haven’t come out as for or against a military government. Most of these parties could potentially form a coalition government with the Thaksin-affiliated groups to elect a prime minister.
Thai Raksa Chart had to stand and take the court’s ruling without much protest in part because soon after they announced the princess’ candidacy, King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a statement blocking her from running.
This isn’t the first time that the Constitutional Court has dissolved a Thaksin-affiliated party. Of the nine judges on the court today, five were serving when the court banned the Thai Rak Thai and Palang Prachachon parties for voter fraud in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
“The party dissolution most certainly affects the rights and basic political freedoms, at least for the MP candidates and the people [who are Thai Raksa Chart supporters] hoping to vote in the March 24 election,” said Thai Raksa Chart Party leader Preechaphol Pongpanit after the ruling.
The pro-military Palang Pracharath party has nominated current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to lead the new government, indicating two things: first, they believe moderate policies and a continuation of business-as-usual will placate Thai voters and second, they believe that even under a new ostensibly democratic government, those in power won’t actually be beholden to popular will.
By forming a political party that will participate in the upcoming elections, the current junta is trying to maintain its power in a way that Thailand has never seen before. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who served as prime minister from 2008 to 2011, has said that he won’t support Prayut to lead the government. In a message to supporters earlier this week, he said that supporting Prayut as prime minister would lead to political conflict.
Facing massive economic inequality and stagnant growth, voters are ready to demand change
Opposition groups, however, realize that voters are ready to call for a new, more democratic politics. Thailand has the worst wealth inequality in the world, with the richest 1% owning almost 67% of the country’s wealth. The country spends around 7.8% of its GDP on social services, compared to an average of 20% among OECD countries. Since the 2014 coup, GDP growth has quickened while average wage growth slowed to a halt and only began to recover in 2018.
“A government can no longer simply look at GDP figures and base its success on their rise and fall,” said Abhisit.
Pro-reform parties are focusing on calls for change and policies to address the challenges that Thai society has faced under the junta’s rule. Thai Raksa Chart adopted the slogan “Think new, act new,” and the party promised a more transparent government as well as policies to address political and economic inequality.
Pheu Thai outlined plans for a minimum wage increase and a minimum price for paddy rice, a plan that sounds similar to the ill-fated program that Yingluck Shinawatra implemented as prime minister. The party has also pledged to reform land tenure laws and leverage technology to benefit farmers.
Future Forward, led by young businessman Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has focused on a platform that will raise taxes, build welfare programs, and support small and medium-sized businesses rather than large corporations. The party’s name in Thai is “Anakoht Mai,” meaning “new future.”
Future Forward, Thai Raksa Chart, and Pheu Thai have also both suggested shrinking the military’s budget. Pheu Thai said that a 20% cut to the military’s budget could be used to fund entrepreneurs and support the growth of new businesses. Future Forward suggests the money should be used to double social security allowances given to the elderly. Many of the opposition parties have also called for an end to the military draft.
Bhumjaithai, a party that hasn’t taken a firmly pro or anti-junta stance, has built its platform on initiatives that would liberalise industries to increase state revenue. One such proposal is to legalise marijuana and make Thailand a production hub for the crop.
The court’s dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart has removed a crucial outlet for dissent among Thai voters. The court may not have had a choice – Thai Raksa Chart’s actions breached what the public perceives to be an inviolate barrier between the royal family and politics.
The junta is still going through the motions of the elections, but the court’s decision has shown they aren’t afraid to openly undermine the elections. The open suppression of Thai Raksa Chart in the name of preserving stability will likely have the opposite effect. The opposition may not have the popular support to override the military’s attempts to stay in power, but they do have enough backing to throw the country into unrest if they declare the elections illegitimate.