Thailand’s Parliament Has Been Dissolved: Elections Loom, But Will They Be Free?
Thailand’s parliament has officially dissolved with elections in less than two months. The current, highly unpopular government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and a group of military-backed allies were elected in 2019 in a dubious poll following a 2014 coup. But now, it does not look likely that military-favored parties would be re-elected if there is a free and fair election.
A recent poll showed the Pheu Thai party of longtime politico Thaksin Shinawatra leads the polls, other opposition parties have posted fairly strong showings, and Pheu Thai’s top prime ministerial candidate, Thaksin’s daughter, is the Thai people’s current top choice for prime minster. Meanwhile, the top military leaders have split, with Prayuth running as the candidate of one party and deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan running as the candidate of another. Whether, after Election Day, these military leaders will be willing to reunite their parties to stay in power remains an open question. Prawit has indicated his party may be willing to negotiate with the opposition.
In a free and fair election, it would be difficult for military-aligned parties to put together a winning coalition. But this could well not be a free and fair election. (2019 was not, after all.) The election commission is in the hands of Prayuth and his allies, and they can disqualify MPs who have won. The top court can even go so far as to disqualify entire parties.
Prayuth and his allies already have taken steps to hurt the opposition. Instead of just letting parliament end naturally, making May 7 election day, Prayuth dissolved parliament to make May 14 election day. There was no reason to push the election back a week—except perhaps that May 14 is also exam day for students across the country. This new election date is a problem for opposition. Students may be less likely to vote, and students are an essential voting bloc for opposition parties. But there are other worrying signs of how Prayuth and his allies may make the election unfree and unfair.
The organization responsible for counting and reporting the votes is shifting their methods, and there may be an unusually long amount of time before votes are reported. The upper house of 250 senators, who were essentially picked by the military and its allies, also wields immense power. Even if Pheu Thai and potential coalition parties win the majority of seats in the lower house, the upper house could use their votes as a bloc to prevent the opposition parties from taking power. (Pheu Thai is hoping for a majority of the lower house, but is open to a coalition in the lower house). This would instead force a situation where potentially someone like General Prawit could become prime minister, backed by the senators and a motley group of pro-military parties in coalition. Thus, having unelected senators help determine the election is neither free nor fair.
Then, there is always the possibility of another coup. This is Thailand after all, which has had 13 successful coups and many more attempts since the end of the absolute monarchy. If the opposition parties dominate the vote and the several military parties are wiped out, it is certainly possible to imagine a coup. It is especially possible given that one of the opposition parties, in an unprecedented situation in Thailand, has openly called out some problems with Thailand’s monarchy (though they have toned down some rhetoric recently) which might lead the Thai king to tacitly support a putsch.