Will Prayut last through 2023?

H.E. General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister, Kingdom of Thailand WTTC Global Summit 2017

Prayut Chan-o-cha gets the official nod as Prime Minister for another four years. The military’s proxy party will likely finish its term, but the opposition has a responsibility to lay the groundwork for true democracy.

By Zachary Frye  

Nearly two and a half months after holding its first vote in five years, Thailand finally confirmed its next prime minister (PM). After a late-night session in parliament on June 5, 2019, 500 representatives from the upper and lower houses voted for Mr. Chan-o-cha, well above the 376 needed to form a government.

As stipulated in Thailand’s new constitution, pushed through by the military-led government in 2017, the National Council for Peace and Order (the military’s governing wing) handpicked all 250 members of the Senate. This gave the military’s proxy party, Palang Pracharath (PPRP), a clear advantage in the race for Thailand’s next leader.

But how long can the party maintain its grip on power? A formidable opposition haunts PPRP, as does the spectre of public demonstration. But powerful allies and a veil of stability will immunise the PM from an early public effort to oust him.

If Prayut and his party of military-backed elites are unable to complete a full term, it is more likely to be a result of the PMs folly than the opposition’s coercion.

The military won’t push out PPRP voluntarily

Thailand is notorious for its coups. If the promise of democracy feels far-fetched, it isn’t without merit. There hasn’t been an elected leader that has finished out a full term since Thaskin Shinawatra in 2005.

President George W. Bush shakes hands with Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, during a visit to the Oval Office at the White House, Monday, Sept. 19, 2005 in Washington. White House photo by Eric Draper

In all subsequent coups, the military intervened against non-aligned groups. Even if there was a widespread loss in the legitimacy of its power, there is no evidence to suggest that the military would consider removing itself from office.

The military will pushback against perceived erosions of its power and privilege. In 1973, student protests emerged after three decades of military rule. The ruling class and its allies portrayed the protestors as traitors and communists. Then the army stormed campus and forced the students out. As a result, at least 77 people died and some 800 were wounded. The chaos was used as justification for further military rule.     

A changed political landscape complicates old alliances

In the previous decade, Shinawatra-backed parties dominated the political opposition.

Although Shinawatra remains influential, the Future Forward Party (FFP) – a new political movement led by a charismatic businessman-turned-politician named Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit – has emerged as an alternative to the military’s long-term ambitions.

Campaigning hard on a pro-democracy platform, the party was able to secure 81 parliamentary seats on 6.2 million votes in this year’s election. He was also able to negotiate an anti-PPRP coalition with the Thaksin-backed party, Pheu Thai.

Despite the partnership, it’s unclear whether Pheu Thai and FFP can sustain a meaningful opposition. Thanathorn’s status as party leader is in jeopardy after the Election Commission announced an investigation into alleged finance violations.

Others are concerned that FFP’s brand of progressivism is unsuited for broad support among the poorer, but conservative demographics that traditionally voted for Thaksin’s brand of populism.

“My friends and I will still vote Pheu Thai,” said Na, a 58-year-old Thaksin supporter. “I don’t want a young man to lead the country.”

Pushback is vital, but opposition parties should tread with caution

Fighting back against the coalition of big business, political elites, and the military isn’t going to be easy. As recent history shows, the ruling class in Thailand is willing to use its power and influence over the judicial system to secure favourable outcomes.

Political foes like Yingluck Shinawatra continue to battle corruption cases. The military’s allies often emerge unscathed. Late last year, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was cleared of all charges relating to a false assets declaration. Watchdogs criticized the investigation for its limited transparency.  

Yingluck Shinawatra.
Photo: Moritz Hager/CC BY-SA 2.0

In order to loosen the political elite’s stranglehold on power, the opposition will need to forge new alliances and present a united front. They will need to listen to voters and formulate strategies to address their core concerns.

Nongnut Sangsuna, a lottery ticket seller in Thailand’s northeast, said: “In the last few years I haven’t had a baht left in my purse…I want a democratic party, one that takes care of the people. It needs to be a party that hears the voice of the people, one that improves the economy at all levels, and helps people progress.”

But the path towards this goal is fraught with potential setbacks. Move too hastily and the opposition risks getting its leaders banned and its movement stunted by systems that favour the political elites. Stay too quiet, and the current momentum will dissipate, resulting in capitulation to anti-democratic forces.

The opposition needs to play the long game and exercise patience. It isn’t going to relieve the country of military rule during Mr Chan-o-cha’s first democratically elected term, nor should it aim to. Despite allegations of election mismanagement, it would look hypocritical to call for the ouster of a party that tallied the most votes.

Only a big-tent movement will rescue Thailand from prolonged military rule. To make this a reality, it is vital that Pheu Thai and FFP sustain their partnership. A divided opposition only hinders the forces of democracy moving forward.        

Pheu Thai, FFP, and others who wish to join the opposition’s ranks need to use the next four years to keep campaigning on the benefits of a free, sans-military Thailand. They need to demonstrate that only a legitimate democratic system can keep leaders accountable and responsive to the needs of everyday Thais.

Elites in Bangkok are content with the perceived stability that the army offers them. Unless PPRP badly shoots itself in the foot, it looks set to maintain power for at least another four years. The opposition has a duty to the country to do all it can to prevent it from winning four more. Toward this goal, a united opposition is crucial.