With a week left before Thailand’s first national elections in eight years, the kingdom looks unlikely to resolve its political tensions, no matter the result of the vote. Instead, Thailand seems destined for continued political instability, although that instability could come in different forms, depending on the results of the election.
Scenario 1: Prayuth Chan-ocha remains prime minister, cobbling together a modest coalition in the lower house, and combining that support with support from the upper house’s pro-military senators, who were all essentially installed by the junta. With anti-junta party Thai Raksa Chart disqualified from the election, pressure being applied on other anti-junta parties, and Prayuth’s advantages—he can become prime minister with only the support of 126 MPs in the lower house, because of the junta-created advantage in the upper house, where all the senators were appointed by the military government—the possibility of Prayuth staying on as prime minister is looking more likely. To be sure, Prayuth’s victory is by no means assured. Prayuth has been on a national tour, trying to soften his image as an intolerant and repressive leader, but there is not much evidence his strategy is working and that his party, Palang Prachart, has significant support.
Still, Palang Prachart and potential allies in the lower house could eke out enough votes to make Prayuth prime minister. As prime minister, however, would Prayuth be effective in a civilian government?
Unlikely. Prayuth has shown, during five years of army rule, to be intolerant of dissent and criticism, to have few ideas about how to bridge Thailand’s deep regional economic gaps, and to be supportive of policies that seem to bolster both the military and increase widening income inequality in the kingdom. During five years of junta rule under Prayuth, Thailand made little headway in upgrading its infrastructure, addressing the serious challenges in its education system, solving the southern insurgency, or making any progress toward ending its years of political chaos. And that was during a period in which the military governed in a highly repressive manner; after the election, Prayuth would have to lead in a freer environment, with opposition politicians, a freer press, and more open public protest. There seems little reason to believe that, as a civilian prime minister in a more hotly contested political environment, Prayuth would prove more effective at leadership, or more capable of focusing Bangkok on Thailand’s deep divides and serious long-term challenges.
Scenario 2: Anti-junta parties, working in a coalition, manage to win 376 out of 500 seats in the lower house, and thus have the right to appoint a prime minister. Although this scenario looks increasingly unlikely, given the heightened environment of repression leading up to Election Day and the procedural and constitutional obstacles to an anti-junta coalition winning 376 seats, it is still possible. In this scenario, a combination of Puea Thai, Future Forward, and other parties like the Democrat Party, which has not ruled out joining such a coalition, though it seems unlikely, could win enough seats to select a prime minister.
But after the initial triumph, there would likely be major, politically fatal roadblocks. The military will not allow an anti-junta coalition to take power and remain in power, creating the possibility of a civilian government working to reform the armed forces, reduce its budget, and establish greater civilian control. The Election Commission could begin disqualifying candidates from the anti-junta coalition and ordering re-runs of specific constituencies, until the anti-junta coalition lost control of the lower house. Thailand’s top court could dissolve the Future Forward Party. The military and its allies in parliament could twist arms to get the Democrat Party to instead join a coalition with Palang Prachart, a possibility that cannot be ruled out. In this scenario, some Palang Prachart-led coalition would eventually take power, following a period of instability—and voters who backed an anti-junta coalition would be furious. Either way, the outlook cannot be optimistic.