What’s at stake in Thailand’s elections?
The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who also led Thailand’s 2014 coup, is unpopular. It has badly mismanaged the economy and responses to COVID-19, and Prayuth has developed a reputation for harshness. A truly free election that leads to a democratic government could halt Thailand’s long slide into semi-autocracy and even open the door for real discussion and reform of the monarchy; King Maha Vajiralongkorn has gained far too much power, compared to his father, over public finances, politics, and strategic affairs.
Free and fair elections could serve as a boost to a region suffering significant democratic regression. In addition, a democratic government would likely bolster U.S.-Thailand ties, possibly reducing Thailand’s strategic dependence on China.
Conversely, if the military, aligned with the king, thwart the popular will—via the courts, an outright coup, or other measures—it would be a disaster. It would further the region’s political regression, including in Myanmar, and, if past is prologue, likely spark violence in Bangkok. It would alienate young Thais, possibly causing many to emigrate. What’s more, a coup would strike a severe blow to the U.S.-Thailand relationship at a time of great regional instability, and it would likely push Bangkok even closer to Beijing, a relationship that strengthened after the 2014 coup. The United States would be forced by law to impose some sanctions on treaty ally Thailand, possibly sealing a situation in which China is not only Thailand’s dominant economic partner but also its top strategic partner.
Who are the main players contesting the election?
Prayuth’s military-linked ruling party, United Thai Nation, is polling at 14 percent among Bangkokians and might not get more than a handful of seats. Another top military-affiliated politician, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, leads the Palang Pracharat Party. Prawit is a more adept politician, but his party is polling miserably too. He has even discussed forming an alliance with non-military opposition parties.
The top opposition party, dominated for two decades by populist tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra despite him now having no official role in it, is Pheu Thai. Notably, another leading opposition party, Move Forward, last year opened a dialogue about the monarchy and the laws protecting it. That was a first for Thailand, where draconian lèse-majesté laws protect the monarchy. However, Move Forward has talked less about the palace in recent months. The party is highly popular, especially among younger Thais, and it is battling seriously with Pheu Thai for the opposition vote but would ultimately probably form a coalition with Pheu Thai if necessary.
What are the prospects for a free and fair election?
On Election Day, it is likely the vote will be conducted relatively freely and fairly. But ahead of that, Prayuth and the longtime military-monarchy establishment have already tried to undermine the opposition. They scheduled the election for May 14, when university students—a critical voting bloc for the opposition—will be taking exams, making it harder to vote. Additionally, thousands of critics have been legally targeted in recent years. The ruling coalition enjoys structural advantages, too. The election commission remains controlled by Prayuth’s allies, as does Thailand’s top court. To form a government under Thai law, a party or coalition has to win a majority of the lower house plus the upper house, the unelected, 250-member Senate, which is under the sway of the military. This means 376 votes are needed to become the governing party or coalition in parliament.
Nonetheless, it is likely the opposition will win a smashing victory on May 14. Recent predictions suggest Pheu Thai alone could win an absolute majority of seats in the five-hundred-seat lower house. Some polls suggest Thais prefer Thaksin’s charismatic daughter Paetongtarn, a stated prime ministerial candidate from Pheu Thai, to any other possible leader by more than two to one. Pheu Thai also could partner with Prawit’s party or, more likely, other opposition parties such as Move Forward. That would possibly get the opposition close to 376 without senatorial support, since polls show about 67 percent of Thais prefer the opposition.
What could happen if the opposition wins a sizable victory, and how might the military respond?
While polling shows an opposition landslide, the military and king could be unlikely to allow an opposition-controlled kingdom. Using the Senate, they could try to prevent the opposition from receiving 376 votes and force opposition parties to agree to Prawit as prime minister. Alternatively, they could force a situation in which Prawit serves as premier for two years and then a Pheu Thai prime minster serves for two years. Or, the judiciary could bring cases to disqualify opposition candidates and whole parties. And if the military sees no other option, a coup, probably endorsed by the mercurial (and increasingly disliked) King Vajiralongkorn, is always possible in a country that has had 13 successful ones in its modern era.