Since Thailand experienced a military coup last May, international observers have been anxiously waiting to see when the ruling junta will allow an elusive election to take place to restore democratic governance. Yet with the Thai military once again bent on tinkering with the rules of the game to produce a political outcome favorable to its interests, one can be forgiven for wondering if the holding of the election itself may even matter.
The latest indications from the junta are that the election, first promised for late 2015, will be held around mid-2017. The “6-4-6-4” road map to democracy revealed in September last year posits six months to draft a new constitution, four months to hold a referendum on it, six months to draft organic laws to support the constitution and four months to campaign ahead of the election. The unveiling of a new version of the constitution earlier this month suggests that we are still on track for this timetable, at least for now.
But the crux of the problem in Thailand has not been the holding of the election itself, but the unwillingness of various groups to accept the outcome. Political contestation in Thailand over the past decade has occurred against the backdrop of a struggle between the military-backed royalist elite and parties linked to policeman-turned-business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. While Thaksin-linked parties have won each of the country’s last three elections – in 2001, 2007 and 2011 – each time they have been by ousted by military coups, paralyzing political protests, and other legal maneuvers. With the latest coup in May 2014 deposing Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, Thailand continues to try to find what renowned Thai commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak describes as a balance between competing sources of elected and unelected political legitimacy.
As part of this process, the ruling junta and affiliated groups are now once again tinkering with the rules of the game to both prevent Thaksin-linked parties from winning in the country’s next election as well as to retain enough power to intervene again at a future date, particularly with a royal succession pending. The health of revered monarch Bhumipol Adulyadej has been deteriorating. The latest draft of the proposed constitution is a case in point. If it is adopted, Thailand’s Senate would be appointed rather than elected, while individuals outside of parliament (such as junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha) will be eligible to be appointed prime minister. This is in line with previous attempts to change the rules of politics by boosting the military’s political role, weakening the power of the parliament and executive, and manipulating legal bodies.
But the current draft of the constitution also calls for a change in the way that Thais elect their representatives, which could have a significant impact on electoral outcomes. Specifically, indications are that the switch to a version of a mixed member system called the mixed member apportionment system (MMA) could lead to greater vote shares for medium-sized parties in upcoming polls, creating the conditions for the formation of a coalition of those parties and the Democrat Party against the Thaksin-linked party.
While it is impossible to definitively prove how polls will turn out until they occur, there is enough reason to suggest that this might be the case. While the electoral system Thailand used in 2011 (mixed member majoritarian, or MMM) and the proposed MMA for upcoming elections in 2017 are both mixed member, proportional representation systems, the new MMA is more proportional than MMM. In general, greater proportionality tends to benefit smaller parties at the expense of more dominant ones, with the devil being in the details, including threshold levels as well as how exactly the party list system is implemented.
For a more concrete sense of the outcome, consider the results of a recent simulation run by Allen Hicken, a professor at the University of Michigan and a noted Thai expert. Hicken’s simulation looks at how the 2011 election results might map onto the 2017 elections under the MMA system, using the new rules which, as stipulated under the constitution, would apply to 350 constituency seats and 150 party list seats. As is the case in mixed member systems, voters would essentially cast two votes – one for a constituency representative and one for a party – except they would do so in a single, fused ballot as opposed to two separate ones.
Upon running the simulation, Hicken found that the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party would get a diminished share of seats this time relative to the 2011 elections as the ruling junta would want, going from 265 seats (53 percent) to 225 seats (45 percent). But the simulation also found that the other major party, the Democrat Party, would only gain a single seat, going from 159 seats (31.8 percent) to 160 seats (32 percent). Indeed, the bulk of the seats that Pheu Thai lost in the simulation went to medium-sized parties.
What does all of this mean? Well, if this is indeed what happens after the elections, the military and other affiliated groups may try to bring together the Democrats and other medium-sized parties in some sort of coalition government to prevent, or at least blunt, the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai’s return to power despite it being the largest party. Furthermore, if a “crisis” of some kind is deemed to have occurred, we could even have this unity government led by a military or military-backed individual, since the newly proposed constitution has a provision allowing for an unelected prime minister.
We’ve seen this playbook before following the 2007 elections. In those polls, the Thaksin-linked People’s Power Party (PPP) won the largest share of the vote and formed a six-party coalition government, leaving the Democrat Party headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva in opposition. But by 2008, after extended street protests, the banning of the PPP and two of its coalition allies by the constitutional court, and some alleged arm-twisting by the military, members of parliament (MPs) from former PPP-coalition parties crossed the aisle to endorse a Democrat-led coalition government.
“[T]his was a mechanism that was…in fact engineered by the very same people who staged the coup. So they know exactly how to do it,” Duncan McCargo, one of the world’s leading experts on Thai politics, warned in a talk at the Brookings Institution last week.
This scenario is far from ideal. Cobbling together a coalition government to blunt a democratic outcome that the military does not want is hardly a sustainable way to resolve a protracted political struggle. In the post-2007 election case, the formation of a Democrat-led coalition government only angered the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts, which resulted in violent protests, a state of emergency, and ultimately a general election in 2011 which the Democrat Party lost to Pheu Thai led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck. For all his faults, Thaksin’s popularity is rooted in broader societal changes in Thailand which account for his strong support in the north and the northeast. Attempts to paper over a political divide rooted in structural societal changes with engineered elite deals are likely to fail.
Beyond the outcome itself, the process could also prove more difficult than it has been in the past. Thais as well as international observers may be less likely to accept essentially a repeat of a scenario they have seen before. And with the military directly in charge of the country this time, this scenario might be relatively tougher to sell in a polarized political climate. Arm-twisting parties and individual MPs may also harder to accomplish – as one Thai expert put it, “it may be difficult to find scapegoats because they may be afraid of being crucified.”
All this also assumes that the junta actually plans on holding polls at all and that they intend to return Thailand to a form of ‘civilian-led rule’ for various reasons, including the buildup of Western and domestic pressure. But as Shawn Crispin wrote recently for The Diplomat, that’s not necessarily the case. Crispin argues that the junta is unlikely to hold a faux election as of now because the risk is too high that a pro-Thaksin government will be swept into power, thereby reversing the junta’s policies and potentially even taking political revenge. In addition, he suggests that the “democratic lesson” of the 2007 elections would act as a further deterrent to the junta holding polls, especially with the royal succession still unresolved and no clear sign yet that the urban-based middle class will resist continued military rule. Instead, Crispin says the most likely scenario is that Prayut remains in charge until what he terms “the actuarial moment.”
But if indeed the junta decides to hold the election as it has claimed, as of now the aforementioned outcome looks like the best one it can hope for.
“It’s not straightforward, it’s very messy and unsatisfactory, but it’s…the best unsatisfactory outcome that the military could hope for, with all the different things that they are juggling around here,” McCargo said.