Thais cast ballots last Sunday in their first general election since 2014 and the vote resolved little, if anything. The population remains deeply divided, as evidenced by the support for the two leading parties, but the structural advantage enjoyed by the ruling party — installed by and closely associated with the military — ensures that the status quo will not be challenged. This result was expected and portends ill for genuine democracy in that country.
The Thai Army launched a coup against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, asserting that she was corrupt, and promised a return to democracy as soon as possible. Ultimately, that meant five years, enough time for the military leaders who took command to don civilian clothes, demonstrate that they were capable leaders and, perhaps most importantly, write and see ratified a constitution that ensured that the military would retain power no matter what electoral results occurred.
Confident that they had both won over enough of the public and institutionalized control over government, they called the general election that was held last Sunday. As anticipated, voters were both deeply split and the results were contested. Initial tallies showed the Pheu Thai Party, the main opposition party that is aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup and older brother of the prime minister removed in 2014, winning 137 of the 500 seats in the Lower House. On Wednesday afternoon, the party announced that it had formed a coalition with six other parties. The pro-military Palang Pracharat party claimed 97 seats but said that it was ahead in the popular vote, which gave it the right, a party spokesperson insisted, to form a government with like-minded parties. The remaining seats will be apportioned by proportional representation and that will take some time to tally. Final results are expected May 9.
A party needs 376 votes — a majority of both the 500-seat House of Representatives and the 250-seat Senate — to form a government. But since every Senate seat is appointed by the military, Palang Pracharat needs only to win 126 House seats to get a majority, while Pheu Thai (or any party that is not backed by the military) must win 376 seats in the House of Representatives. That institutional “fix” — a product of the new constitution — is the main reason the junta was ready to call an election.
Apparently, that was not a sufficient guarantee for the military, however. Election watchdogs have denounced the vote, calling it “not free and fair.” They point to alleged irregularities such as having nearly twice as many ballots counted as voters in some districts. They also note that Palang Pracharat’s edge in the popular vote runs counter to every pre-election survey.
The electoral commission reported over 100 complaints that it was said to be investigating. Those complaints may account for the delay in posting results: Normally, final tallies are available on the night of the election, but this time only partial results have been reported days after the vote. Insufficient staffing and poor training contributed to the confusion, while electoral commission members were picked by the military and given little time to learn their jobs.
No observer of Thai politics should be surprised. Since Thaksin first came to power in 2001, he has been the country’s most popular politician. He or his surrogates have won every election for two decades by espousing a populist agenda that directly challenged entrenched elites in Bangkok. Those elites invariably overturned the government and then lost the next election. The new constitution was intended to end that cycle.
Palang Pracharat may form a government that possesses the veneer of democracy. And a nondemocratic government can provide stability. The Thai economy registered 4.1 percent growth in 2018 — its fastest expansion in six years — and is expected to grow 4 percent in 2019. The military government has been more sensitive to regional concerns and ensured that provinces receive a larger share of government funds, which should buy it support among disaffected citizens.
Japan has an important stake in Thailand. Japanese investors account for nearly 40 percent of total investment in Thailand, making Japan the leading investor in the country. Those businesses view its 69 million people as an important market and the country as a gateway to Southeast Asia. Japanese investors, along with Tokyo, should worry that the new government is only buying time. The profound divisions in Thai society are not being addressed by this election. They can be suppressed for only so long. This election may push that date back, but it has only postponed the eventual reckoning.