Thailand’s Winding Road to Democracy

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Thailand’s Winding Road to Democracy

Thailand’s latest constitution set a roadmap for elections, but analysts fear true democracy may never return.

Thailand’s Winding Road to Democracy

Voters participate in Thailand’s 2007 general elections.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Tevaprapas

Thailand’s 20th constitution was enshrined into law this April, and with it came fresh powers for the ruling military junta, increasing the military’s involvement in politics with the introduction of a military-appointed senate and forcing any future government to adhere to the junta’s 20-year development plan.

The constitution also included additional provisions for King Maha Vajiralongkorn, stripping the constitutional court of its power to call a meeting in the event of crisis, while allowing the King to travel without appointing a regent. Importantly though, the constitution paves the way for elections to take place once again in Thailand, heralding the return of democratic rule.

Before a date can be set for the election however, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) must first draft and submit 10 “organic laws” that will act as a template for the new electoral system. After these have been ratified by the National Legislative Assembly, King Vajiralongkorn will, if all goes to plan, sign off on them, and that would signal the start of the five-month window during which the new election must be held. This would see elections, in theory, being held at the end of next year.

But even at a glance it is clear that the elections will not mark the full return of democracy; instead, Thailand will have a democracy constrained and limited in its scope. Dr. Tyrell Haberkorn, a fellow at Australian National University, argues that despite claims otherwise, “The new constitution creates a permanent place for the military in government and seeks to normalize their intervention. The new constitution risks institutionalizing authoritarianism rather than paving the way for democracy.”

At a recent public forum event providing an update on the process of the organic laws and looking forward to the planned elections, high profile Thai political figures shared Haberkorn’s trepidation at the authenticity of the returning democracy.

Speaking at Chulalongkorn University, Chaturon Chaisang, former deputy prime minister and cabinet minister in the governments of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, outlined his fears regarding the timetable of the elections: “As far as the schedule of elections is concerned, the timeline keeps changing. There is room for postponement and I am not sure if the election will be held as scheduled.”

Norachit Sinhaseni, former permanent secretary of foreign affairs and speaking as spokesman for the CDC, stressed that the “ten organic laws have to be in place before elections can be held,” raising the possibility that the date of elections could be moved backwards. “The roadmap set out is uncertain,” stated Chaturon, while the director of the Institute of Security and International studies, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, reiterated that the “the entire democratic process can be pushed back.”

Chaturon also is fearful that the elections introduced by the junta will be of little substance. “Most important will be whether the election is meaningful, or whether it will be meaningless. That is important,” he noted. As a former close ally of the Shinawatras, he remains a prominent member of the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party, which he said is not happy with the new constitution. “My own party’s position on the constitution is that we think that it is undemocratic and detrimental to the development of this country.”

One of the key aspects of the laws is the effect they will have on political parties and how they operate. Chaturon explains that he has “major concerns about the organic laws’ [impact] on political parties.” Under the new laws, for a candidate to be selected in a constituency to contest the election, they must be nominated by the local branch of the party, which itself needs at least 100 registered members to become a branch. Chaturon is fearful that branches may be unable to secure 100 registered members. The new rules, he believes, “will lead to administrative difficulties and conflict. The party role will be limited, it will be difficult for small parties to survive and new parties to form.”

Kasit Piromya, former minister of foreign affairs and a prominent member of the Democratic Party of Thailand, shares Chaturon’s skepticism about the effect of new rules on political parties. The constitution, he feels, is worryingly restrictive, “limiting the role of political parties; there is not much room for us to play.”

The organic laws, for instance, outline the method for picking a perspective candidate. From a list of 100 people, every member will be able to vote for up to 15 candidates, which many believe will lead to polarization within parties and factional infighting where potential powerful figures will hold a disproportionate amount of influence. “Political parties should facilitate people into the political process. The party must belong to the people and to the members,” Kasit said, expressing fears that this function will be restrained once the laws come into place.

Worrying too are the qualifications to be put into place, restricting who can and cannot become a member of a political party. “There is disqualification from certain occupations if you are a member of a political party, making people not want to become members,” Chaturon explained. He feels that it will lead to more polarization within society, reducing the possibility of a successful return to democracy.

The transition to democracy in Thailand will surely be accompanied by major efforts from political figures keen to ensure its solid implementation. Kasit though, after 13 coup d’etats in the county’s history and three years of military rule, is despondent and sees a lack of desire for a return to popular rule. “I cannot see how democracy can move forward. The process of democracy here is a farce,” he lamented. Referring to the Thai middle class who have “accepted the junta,” he argued that “the demand for a quick return to democracy is just not there.” Kasit admits that if he was leader, he would not contest the elections — such is his disillusionment with how they are being set up and run by the junta.

As the Thailand government sets out its roadmap to democracy, those wishing for its return are excited as much as they are cautious. Steps have been taken to implement a schedule for elections, but it is susceptible to delay while a clampdown on the freedom of political parties is worrying for many.

As the country moves slowly moves toward elections, the stakes could not be higher, according to Thitinan. “This is an existential decade for Thailand — if it is not a success, I fear a terminal decline for our country.”

Alexi Demetriadi is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok who has written for the Bangkok Post and the New Internationalist, among others.