Thai politics is about to become less authoritarian. But a new political divide is taking shape in the post-junta era as politically-active Thais coalesce around the two poles of pro and anti military. Former ambassador James Wise asks: How democratic will the new political order be? And how stable?
Thailand’s new government has been formally announced. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the de facto government since the 2014 military coup, has been disbanded. The prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, no longer has dictatorial powers. For the next four years he will need the support of a majority of elected MPs. In 2023, perhaps earlier, he will face another election.
So, with the end of direct military government, the conduct of Thai politics will change. In the new semi-democratic system, there will be more public debate and less censorship, more compromises and fewer commands, and greater scrutiny of the government’s performance.
If Prayuth had a bigger parliamentary margin, he might get by in this more open political environment. But currently he can rely on just 254 MPs in the 500-member lower house. He reached this borderline level of support only by enticing 19 political parties into a coalition, and by silencing dissident factions in his own military-based Palang Pracharat party.
Prayuth’s lack of confidence in leading a coalition government is evident in his allocation of portfolios in the new cabinet, including in taking defence himself. He has put Palang Pracharat loyalists into other key ministries like interior, finance and foreign affairs, as well as the deputy prime ministerships overseeing the economy, security and legal affairs.
Keeping his coalition together will require the same haggling that helped him to build it. So expect more bargaining over the allocation of ministerial portfolios, more concessions on policies, more funds to flow into the electorates of pro-government MPs, and frequent ministerial reshuffles. Shoring up the coalition will be a higher priority than policy-making.
Thailand has been here before. The political scientist, Michael Connors, calculated that in the ten years between 1988 and 1997 the composition of the mostly coalition governments changed 12 times. There were nine interior ministers, ten finance ministers and 11 foreign ministers. Yet, over the same period, the then lower-income Thai economy grew by 9.2 per cent. So political instability in Thailand may not constrain economic growth as much as expected.
The reappointment of Somkid Jatrusripitak as the deputy prime minister in charge of the economy will reassure the business community. For the last few years, he has devised policies that have underpinned Thailand’s steady, though unremarkable, economic growth. These policies included massive infrastructure investment, especially in the transport sector, and the ambitious Eastern Economic Corridor aimed at creating a high-tech hub in the provinces to the east of Bangkok.
Recently, the World Bank estimated the now middle-income Thai economy would grow by 3.5 per cent this year, 3.6 per cent next year, and 3.7 per cent in 2021. With inflation at around 1 per cent, population growth at 0.3 per cent, and the economy’s historical capacity to weather political storms, this seemingly slow economic growth may not destabilise the new government.
The bigger threat is the deep polarisation that still afflicts Thailand’s politics. Previously, one pole was the Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai party and red-shirt movement, and the other was the Democrat Party and yellow-shirt movement, which ultimately could rely on the backing of the military and monarchy.
Rather than ease polarisation by fostering red-yellow reconciliation or by re-writing the constitution to help red-yellow adversaries to settle their disputes peacefully, the generals concentrated on destroying former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In doing so, unintentionally but inevitably, they have created a political environment in which political parties, movements and activists now cling to two new poles: pro-military or anti-military.
This new polarisation, which will define Thai politics for the foreseeable future, is hardened by a deeply divided electorate. In the March election, a little more than 45 per cent of voters favoured parties that are sympathetic to the military, reflecting a measure of community comfort with authoritarian control. A little less than 45 per cent of voters didn’t, including 18 per cent of voters, largely younger people, who backed the decidedly anti-military Future Forward Party.
Thailand’s pro-military/anti-military malady might be eased if the constitution was reformed to loosen the military’s grip. Non-government parties, and even the Democrat Party within Prayut’s coalition, are advocating constitutional amendments – loudly, but vainly. The military-sponsored 2017 constitution can be amended only with the support of at least a third of the 250 senators, all of whom were appointed by the military.
The parliamentary opposition is more likely to land a blow on the government in debates – and votes – on the budget and motions of no confidence. The budget bill normally has its third reading each September, so that will be Prayuth’s first major challenge as a semi-elected prime minister. Because motions of no confidence in the government can be brought forward only once a year, the opposition is likely to wait at least six months, hoping to accumulate evidence of mis-government and corruption.
James Wise is Australia’s former ambassador to Thailand.
The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.
James Wise is the author of “Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law”, Marshall Cavendish 2019.
On 24 July, Asialink will welcome Mr James Wise, to Melbourne to examine the prospects of Thai politics. Register to attend the event here.