It has been a turbulent summer for Thailand’s political scene, capped with the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after fifteen years abroad, and with the Pheu Thai Party—long de facto under Thaksin’s sway—forming a governing coalition with pro-military parties and other establishment forces. What do the recent elections mean for Thailand’s democracy?
While the elections themselves were free and fair, their aftermath shows that Thailand remains controlled by a military-royalist establishment aligned with the judiciary and some larger companies. The Move Forward Party won the largest share of the popular vote for seats in the five-hundred-seat lower house, the legislative chamber that actually develops and proposes legislation and is the dominant actor in normal parliamentary sessions. However, the coalition it formed was prevented from forming a government because a coalition must win a majority of seats in the lower and upper house combined. The 250-seat upper house, known as the Senate, is composed of conservative officials appointed by a prior junta. The Senate refused to accept Move Forward because of the party’s desire to reform harsh lèse-majesté laws. Pheu Thai––for years known as the leading pro-democracy party––managed to secure a majority in the lower and upper houses and choose Srettha Thavisin, a tycoon and Pheu Thai leader, as prime minister.
Pheu Thai’s coalition, however, includes several openly pro-military parties, which potentially undermines the coalition’s democratic credentials. Pheu Thai had previously pledged not to ally with military parties, but they could now be given very important portfolios. Meanwhile, the likelihood of any reform of the lèse-majesté law—which imposes extreme punishments for anyone accused of insulting the monarchy and has expanded to target all kinds of political opposition, not just obvious critiques of the palace—is dead. Many Thais suspect that Thaksin’s return from exile means he made a deal with the establishment to scuttle reform and create a conservative coalition. Though he faces criminal charges in Thailand, he almost surely will get a royal pardon or sentence reduction for them.
What role will Move Forward assume now, and does political instability seem likely in the coming months?
Move Forward now becomes the major opposition force in parliament, where it has a significant number of seats in the lower house. Still, if Pheu Thai’s coalition holds together, Move Forward will have few formal options for undermining the government or pushing its agenda. Instead, it is likely to take its case to the public, potentially leading to large street rallies, as have happened many times in Thailand. Violent protests could occur, given the enormous frustration among Move Forward supporters and younger Thais in general, who now not only detest the establishment, but also could lash out at Pheu Thai if it drops any plans to reform the role of the military and monarchy. The party once suggested it would do so by calling a referendum to create a new constitution.
There’s also been some intrigue around the royal family’s succession plan. How is this related to the elections?
King Maha Vajiralongkorn is seventy-one years old and has no clear successor. Earlier this month, Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, a previously disowned son of the king who had not returned to Thailand in twenty-seven years, came to the country for a visit that had to have been approved by the palace. Vacharaesorn took part in some conservative rituals, such as visiting several traditional temples, but also intimated that, if he were monarch, he would move the palace in a freer and more modern direction.
While Vacharaesorn’s return is not directly related to the election, it implies that the king understands that Thais are becoming more open about discussing the monarchy, a hot topic of the recent elections. Under Vacharaesorn, the monarchy could eventually become more constitutional, although it remains unclear whether Vajiralongkorn, who has operated almost as an absolute monarch, understands the need for systemic change or just has few choices for a successor.
What could these crises mean for Thailand’s regional role and its relationship with the United States?
The crises will undermine Thailand’s regional role and, potentially, its relationship with the United States, at a time when Bangkok has already moved closer to Beijing. As has occurred throughout the past twenty years of turmoil in Thailand, the current instability will distract Bangkok, once a major power in Southeast Asia, from its regional leadership. This could affect efforts to broker peace next door in Myanmar or even oust the junta there, as well as attempts to address the rise of dangerous incidents in the South China Sea. An unstable Thailand will prove a weak and unreliable ally for the United States, further worrying U.S. policymakers about whether the kingdom can be counted on to support Washington should there be a conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea.