Last month, the military-controlled National Assembly in Thailand announced a plan to delay the enforcement of a new election law, raising the likelihood that the holding of an election will be postponed again. Earlier, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha promised that the next poll was to be held in 2018; if is delayed, this would constitute the fourth time the election date was pushed back.
Immediately, the announcement sent a shockwave through the Thai stock market. On January 25, the index tumbled 19.67 points or 1.07 percent, reflecting anxiety over political uncertainty ahead. Investors’ lack of confidence will no doubt negatively affect the credibility of the military government, which came to power in a coup in May 2014 and has shown few signs of fully restoring the country back to civilian democratic rule.
At stake is not just the country’s economic wellbeing, but its political future as well. The ability to control the political domain in the post-Bhumibol period is crucial to the long-term interests of the ruling junta. The fluidity of the royal transition, which saw the enthronement of the unpopular king, Vajiralongkorn, signifies that the political situation is far from being settled. This compels the military to continue to hold on tightly to power.
In this context, the delaying tactic is meant to ensure that opponents are eliminated and will not return after the next election, and that the military will guarantee its share of political power even after it steps down at some point in the future. To the military elites, who did not disguise their disgust for former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck, the Shinawatras are still the greatest threat to both their own political position, and more importantly, the stability of the throne.
Indeed, it was the fear of the Shinawatras’ remaining influence that drove the military to stage two coups within eight years, toppling Thaksin in 2006 and Yingluck in 2014. The emergence of Thaksin in 2001 had threatened to shift the old power structure, for decades dominated by the monarchy-military axis. Thaksin, riding as the champion of electoral democracy, rewrote the political script, forging an effective populist platform designed to empower the poor and alienate the old but powerful axis.
To thwart Thaksin’s growing clout, his enemies pitted him against the much-revered King Bhumibol. That allowed them to carry out their personal battle against Thaksin under the pretext of safeguarding the monarchy, a revered and important political institution in the country. But now that the era of Bhumibol has ended with the passing of the respected monarch, the military has become jittery because of a rumor about close ties between Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn.
Real or fake, rumors have already made the military nervous. The military leaders are worried that the vacuum of power, caused by the end of the formidable reign of Bhumibol and now filled with unknowns, is at risk of being manipulated and even filled in some form by the Shinawatras. For them, Thaksin’s relations with Vajiralongkorn will damage the old status quo long governing Thailand.
Although it is stipulated in the constitution that the monarchy must stay above politics, the periodic intervention during violent crises by Bhumibol in the past was effectively made a political norm accepted by the majority of Thais. Given the significant role of the monarchy in politics, it is expected that King Vajiralongkorn’s vision will certainly shape the future political contours of Thailand.
Since his ascendance to the throne in December 2016, Vajiralongkorn has been preoccupied with consolidating his position, most evidently through his request to have the constitution amended, particularly when it comes to the provisions related to royal affairs. For example, he limited the responsibility of the regent such that, from now on, he does not need to appoint a regent when he resides overseas. This is a significant because it allows him to govern his kingdom from afar as he takes up Germany as his main country of residence. In addition, he has now effectively taken full control of the rich Crown Property Bureau, thereby enabling him to manage his own wealth without the state’s interference.
Although Vajiralongkorn has already openly violated royal protocols, the military is eager to keep him happy for the sake of maintaining their ties. Consequently, his request for constitutional amendments was embraced by the junta. In this context, the election delaying tactic is useful, at least at this point in time, to both strengthen the military’s partnership with the new king and to remove the menace of Shinawatras once and for all. Pressuring Yingluck to flee the country also fulfilled the military’s mission.
To further prove its loyalty to the king, the military has been assertive in enforcing the lèse-majesté law to protect the new king’s dignity. Cases of lèse-majesté have skyrocketed since Vajiralongkorn’s reign began. A Khon Kaen student has been jailed for sharing a BBC article on the biography of the controversial king. Silencing critics of the monarchy has long been the primary mission of the army, but the recent assertiveness in this regard is clear for all to see.
Meanwhile, Vajiralongkorn has reciprocated by working with the military on a number of projects, from his own campaign of “Bike for Mom” and “Bike for Dad” – fully sponsored by the military – to his blessing of the military regime as demonstrated by his indifferent attitude toward pro-democracy voices in the country. That, too, should come as no surprise: the delay of the election is a necessary tactic in the renewal process of the old military-monarchy axis.
What will all this mean for Thailand’s political future? The delay would frustrate many Thais and foreign investors alike. It could either exhaust the pro-democratic movements in the country or intensify their determination to overthrow the military regime. Either way, stalemate will rule over Thailand.
The delay will also have repercussions for democracy in Southeast Asia. Recent events in the region have given rise to pessimism regarding the future of democracy there, including the rise of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, the continued human rights crackdown in Cambodia, and the Rohingya crisis that has unfolded under the watch of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. While Southeast Asian leaders talk at great length about a political community that cherishes democracy and human rights, what is unfolding is growing authoritarianism. Thailand is not exempt from this, and given the ongoing struggle for power underway there, it is difficult to see this changing anytime soon.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.