The government of Thailand has announced that it will hold its long-delayed general election on March 24. Approval of the plans by the national Election Commission and the Royal Household Bureau means that campaigning can begin for what will be a tight race. Five years of military rule has not diminished the Thai people’s desire to pick their own government, and if the past is any prologue, the populist forces that have been represented by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his sister Yingluck and their Pheu Thai Party will prove formidable; fortunately for the ruling junta, it has rigged the game to ensure that it retains control over political outcomes.
Thailand has been ruled by a military junta since May 2014, when a group of officers led by former Army Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha overthrew then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to restore order after six months of protests that had paralyzed the country. The revolt against Yingluck was the manifestation of a deep split in Thai politics that emerged since her brother, billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, was elected prime minister in 2001. Thaksin was a populist who appealed to Thailand’s disaffected rural population, which believes that they have been overlooked by the nation’s elite — centered in Bangkok — as the country’s economy prospered in the 1980s and 1990s. Thaksin was forced from office after a coup in 2007, and has lived in exile ever since, but he retains considerable political influence. His sister rode that support to office in a landslide election win in 2011. The Thaksin era has been marked by a disturbing cycle: An election win by populist forces, a revolt by urban elites who challenge the redistributionist agenda, a coup and then another election that is won by the populists.
Prayut, who named himself prime minister after the coup, has promised a return to democracy since he took power. Fearing that the cycle would resume, however, he has delayed elections. He appears to be betting now that the military’s ability to govern through the crisis, stabilize the country and restore growth, and force the nation to adopt a new constitution, will permit his party to retain power. That remains a gamble, however: Thaksin remains popular and the forces he represented are formidable.
Cognizant of that threat, the current government filed charges of criminal negligence, stemming from a rice repurchasing plan, against Yingluck; she lost that case and fled the country in 2017. Thaksin has lost court cases charging him with abuse of power and fled the country as well; he has not returned to Thailand since 2008. The junta recently reopened a case of tax fraud against him, making clear that he is unwelcome in his home country.
With an election date set, campaigns can commence. The junta had banned all gatherings of more than five people; that has been lifted. But the government can still intervene. All parties must submit candidates to the election commission for review. And Prayut has warned that “there should not be chaos again,” a potentially open-ended threat that would allow the military to intervene if it sees the previous political cycle repeating itself.
In fact, there is little need to directly intervene. The constitution that the junta pushed through in 2017 ensures that the military and the elites retain power — or at least a veto — over Thai politics. According to its terms, the public only votes for the 500-seat lower house of Parliament. The membership of the 250-seat upper house, which can block legislation, is chosen by the military. Moreover, since a party only needs to cross a 5 percent threshold to nominate a prime ministerial candidate, the military has a virtually automatic majority in Parliament. Finally, the constitution requires all governments to adopt the current 20-year development plan, which pretty much restricts policy options to those in place.
Thailand’s future matters greatly to Japan. Our two countries have enjoyed diplomatic relations for over 130 years and Japan has viewed Thailand as the gateway to Southeast Asia. Consistent with that vision, it has been the largest foreign investor in Thailand for more than half a century, with investments in 2017 alone totaling nearly $4 billion, almost half (47 percent) of total foreign investment in Thailand in that year. Thailand’s modernization effort, Thailand 4.0 (the development scheme enshrined in the constitution), affords Japan many opportunities for still deeper engagement. During his last meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Prayut expressed interest in having his country join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and asked for Japan’s help in achieving that goal.
The suspension of democracy has clouded the bilateral relationship. Japan must not acquiesce to authoritarian impulses, even if it facilitates relations. That is an offense to Japan’s own values and it undercuts our foreign policy: The idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific is meaningless if we are we ignore undemocratic practices. We welcome the announcement of an election in Thailand and look forward to a new and democratically elected government taking power.