LONDON, May 22 (IPS) – Thailand’s voters have spoken. In the May 14 general election, they overwhelmingly supported change. Two major opposition parties won 293 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives.
The party that unexpectedly came first, Move Forward, quickly notified it had formed a coalition with the runner-up, Pheu Thai, and six others, which accounted for 313 seats. So if democracy is respected, when parliament next meets, the Move Forward-led coalition should become the government and its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, the prime minister.
But there is one problem: Thailand’s powerful military. In the last century, Thailand has had 13 military coups, most recently in 2014. At last election In 2019, widely regarded as neither free nor fair, junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha donned a civilian suit and held power.
But this time the voters made it abundantly clear that they do not want the military in power. Now Thailand is at a crossroads: will a new, democratically elected government be allowed to take power? Or, as before, will the military step in to stop it?
A biased system
There is a powerful tool at the military’s disposal. Under the new constitution introduced in 2017, the prime minister must win the approval of a majority vote of the combined House of Representatives and Senate. The Senate has 250 members – all appointed by the military.
That means 376 votes are needed in the two houses, leaving the new coalition short. The military minority may still be able to maintain its grip by using Senate votes to ignore the reality of its lack of support.
The desire for renewal Move Forward spoke with has been expressed on the streets for years – despite the government unleashing violence and criminalizing protesters. Young people have spearheaded protests, demanding democracy, military reform and – challenging a long-held social taboo – stronger limits on the monarchy’s power.
Royal reforms have historically been kept off the political agenda. In part, this was because the previous king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, reigned for over 70 years and was widely respected. But the same is not true of his successor, Maha Vajiralongkorn, a billionaire playboy who spends much of his time in Germany. Vajiralongkorn expects greater influence in government, and the military has been happy to follow suit. He insisted that clauses to protect royal power be included in the 2017 constitution and in 2019 took control of two army regiments. One of his first acts was to take direct control of the Crown Estates Agency, with a reported value of US$40 billion.
But Vajiralongkorn is backed by criticism from Thailand’s notorious lèse majesté law, which makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the monarch. The government has used this law extensively against protesters. Least 242 people has been charged with majesty crimes since 2020. Overall over 1,800 people estimated to have been jailed under Thailand’s suite of repressive laws, numbering in the hundreds child protesters criminalized.
Focus on political parties
Move Forward reflects directly concern of the young protest movement. Its proposals include a reform of the Majesty’s Act and a closer examination of royal spending. It wants todemilitarizeThailand, among other things by scrapping military conscription, cutting military budgets and making the army more accountable and transparent.
These are ideas that break new ground in Thai politics, and many of the electoral rolls three million new voters embraced them. Move Forward compensated for its lack of resources through heavy use of social media and by encouraging its young supporters to engage with their older family members. By such means, Move Forward went beyond the youth vote: it won almost every place in Bangkok, traditionally held by pro-military and pro-royal parties, and also performed well in areas that usually back Pheu Thai.
Runner-up Pheu Thai is a more established force, dominated by the financially powerful Shinawatra family, which has long been at odds with the military. Both parties have relatively youthful figureheads – Limjaroenrat is a 42-year-old and Paetongtarn Shinawatra is 36 – providing a stark contrast to the old military order, represented by 69-year-old Prayut. But beyond that, it’s not the most natural of alliances, with the two brought together more by what they oppose than anything else.
Having expected to win the election, Pheu Thai may face the temptation to break any other deal that excludes Move Forward – although an alliance with pro-military parties would anger many supporters. Even if the two stay together, they may have to come to terms with some pro-military parties, especially Bhumjaithi, who came third. But Move Forward ruled out any dealings with parties involved in the current government, while Bhumjaithi has completed its opposition to any legislative changes from lèse majesté. The cost of a compromise would likely be to let this go, disappointing voters who had pinned their hopes on change and confirmed continued military and monarchical influence.
Time for democracy
Beyond the Senate, there are other challenges. The military establishment dominates supposedly independent institutions such as the Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court.
Both Move Forward and Pheu Thai may face attempts to shut them down. There is a history of this. Pheu Thai is the third version of a Shinawatra family-led party, while Move Forward is the successor to Future Forward, which gained support from many young voters to finish third in the flawed 2019 election only to disband. A complaint has already been filed against Limjaroenrat.
But the military should accept that the political landscape has changed completely. It must stop trying to hold back the power, whether through parliamentary maneuvering, legislative abuse or an outright coup. It cannot continue to deny the democratic will of a clear majority, as this risks turning Thailand into another Myanmarwhere the military can only maintain power through the ultimately self-destructive exercise of ever-increasing brutality.
Instead, Thailand has the opportunity to offer a brilliant regional example by going in the other direction. It is time for the military to understand this and act accordingly.
Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS editor-in-chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS lens and co-author of Report on the state of civil society.
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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service