In a recent letter to the Washington Post, Thailand’s new ambassador to the United States insisted that despite the May 2014 coup, continued martial law, crackdowns on activists of all types, and an unclear path to election, Thailand remains a democracy. “Thailand has not wavered in its commitment to democracy…progress is being made,” the ambassador insisted. His letter was written in response to a Washington Post editorial entitled “Thailand’s Ineffective Rule by Force,” which argued that the generals are holding hundreds of political prisoners, have mismanaged the Thai economy, have failed to bring stability to the country, and are trying to “permanently hobble democracy” in Thailand.
Although some Thai supporters of the junta will claim that elections are only a subsidiary part of democracy, democracy cannot exist without some type of elections. (Of course, democracy requires much more than just regular elections, but without elections there cannot be democracy.) Yet junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his powerful number two Prawit Wongsuwan, seem to be coming up with reason after reason why Thailand should not hold elections anytime soon. In the early days after the coup, the junta declared that a new charter would be drafted to reform the political system and that elections would be held in 2015. Then, the government announced that the date for elections would be pushed back to early 2016, a promise the ambassador to the United States reiterated in his letter to the Post.
Now, even that goal may not be met. Prayuth, who has become increasingly testy as the Thai media has refused to just accept unquestioningly that whatever he says is correct, has hinted that Thailand must attain political stability before any election can be held. (Prayuth’s relations with the Thai press have deteriorated so much that he reportedly recently said that he wanted to punch a journalist in the face.) According to Khao Sod, when asked by reporters this week about the impact of recent grenade attacks in Bangkok on the prospects for an election, Prayuth responded:
“Can you [reporters] solve it? [political turmoil] If you can’t solve it, then no election. No election! If you can’t solve it, then no election! Are you done now?”
In recent weeks, Prayuth has made other similarly murky statements about the prospects of an election hinging on stability. Who determines when Thailand has reached this stability remains unclear. Is it Prayuth? The courts? Some group of the same elites who are drafting the new charter and presumably will serve in the unelected upper house of Parliament that will be created by the new charter? Someone else? And what constitutes stability? Thailand is unlikely to become calmer in the next year, since opposition to military rule is likely to find some outlet, including violent outlets such as grenade attacks.
Of course, under the charter currently being drafted, even a free and fair election would not necessarily mean elected politicians will be running the country. The new charter will likely weaken the power of political parties, strengthen unelected parts of the government like the Senate and the bureaucracy, and allow for an unelected prime minister to rule the country under certain circumstances. (
Even Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, normally a supporter of the military and elite politics, has publicly blasted the draft charter as “snatching democracy” from Thais). Still, an election, even for a weakened lower house of Parliament, would be better for Thai democracy than no election at all. Will an election happen at all?
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.