The postponement of the Thai general election until at least February 2019 indicates that the military junta is not confident it can preserve its power, writes James Ockey.
The Thai military junta – in power since the 2014 coup – continues to find excuses to put off an election. Scheduled for late 2015 in the original roadmap, it has since been delayed until at least February 2019.
The delays indicate that the regime is not confident it can preserve its power in the aftermath of an election, an encouraging sign for those hoping for a return to democracy.
The next election is likely to include the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties, as well as several clan-based and pro-military parties.
The Democrat Party
The Democrat Party is the oldest party in Thailand, and has developed the only extensive party branch system in the country. It has strong support in the south and in Bangkok.
Prior to the 2014 coup, the Democrat party split, with secretary-general Suthep Thuaksuban leaving the party to lead anti-government protests. Since that time, Suthep has been much more supportive of the military regime than party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, leading to concerns that Suthep might further divide the party. Yet Abhisit and Suthep led the party into a military-brokered coalition government in 2008. The Democrat party has a long history of joining with the military to form governments, so the differences may be exaggerated.
The Democrat party also faces internal tensions over the best use of resources during election campaigns, with some seeking to expend resources on preserving party strongholds and others wishing to broaden support to other regions. The Democrats lag behind political rival Pheu Thai in investment in public relations, media, and electronic technology (although there have been some improvements in these areas). The party continues to struggle to assemble a centralised voter database. The Democrat party will again seek to leverage its branch network during the election, which has not been sufficient to defeat Pheu Thai.
Still, given its regional strongholds, it will likely be one of the largest parties in the new parliament.
The Pheu Thai Party
Pheu Thai has focused heavily on public relations and effective use of media in campaigning since it was created in 1998 (under the Thai Rak Thai party at that time). It also developed an extensive centralised voter database to more efficiently target supporters. It created a set of clear coherent policies intended to benefit constituents, with a particular focus on the poor. Once Thai Rak Thai was elected in 2001, the party implemented those policies.
Consequently, it developed strong voter loyalties, particularly in the North and Northeast, and has won every election since 2001.
Yet with the coup group seemingly determined to undermine Pheu Thai support, it also faces major challenges. Firstly, its relationship with its founder, political exile Thaksin Shinawatra, is problematic. Thailand's constitution prohibits outside influence on political parties. Secondly, Pheu Thai has been out of power for four years at the national level. It has also slowly lost power at the local level as appointed governments replaced elected governments. With no access to local or national political office, and less funding available from the party, some Pheu Thai politicians may struggle to fund ampaigns. Thirdly, Pheu Thai MPs are under pressure by the regime to drop out of politics, or to switch parties. Incentives, including funds for campaigning, may also be offered to encourage members to switch parties.
Finally, Pheu Thai faces a potential leadership crisis. Since Thaksin was forced into exile, party leadership has largely remained with the Shinawatra family. This alleviated tensions between factions within the party, as all accepted the leading role of the Shinawatras. With no family member able to take on the leadership, divisions are likely to come to the forefront and offer the current regime another opportunity to split the party. A new party, Phalang Phonlamuang, was registered by a group of former Pheu Thai MPs when party registration opened, although its members claimed to be on good terms with their former party.
If the party can remain united, retain strong loyalty among voters and make the best use of modern campaign techniques, it is likely to gain the most seats in the parliament.
The electoral laws under the new constitution are designed to benefit small-to-medium sized parties, as the junta apparently wishes to encourage a return to weak coalition governments.
While Thailand has generally moved towards a two-party system since 2001, several regional parties organised around political clans remain. The oldest of these is Chat Thai Phattana, with the son of the late former prime minister Banhan Silipa-acha playing a key role. The Khunpluem family in Chonburi and the Thiengthong family in Sakaeo have also in some elections formed their own parties, particularly after the 2006 coup.
With their clan-based organisational structures, the ability of such parties to expand is limited. Yet they may gain enough seats to play kingmaker in the new parliament. Whether they support an elected prime minister or a military prime minister may prove crucial.
Junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha has already begun campaigning – expanding his travel schedule, promoting populist policies and sending out teams to meet with voters in a “Sustainable Thainess” programme.
On the first day of party registration, several pro-military parties either registered or announced an intention to do so. Among them are a party led by junta-linked Major General Songklod Thiprat (Palang Chat Thai); a party linked to the old People's Alliance for Democracy (New Palang Dhamma); the original yellow shirt movement; and one linked to Suthep and the People's Democratic Reform Committee (Muan Maha Prachachon), which led more recent protests.
We can expect at least one of these parties to be quietly backed by the military in the upcoming elections.
After the 2006 coup, the military backed the Bhumjai Thai party in an attempt to undermine the support of Pheu Thai in the northeast. While Bhumjai Thai had some success in the lower northeast, it was also clan-based, and struggled to expand beyond its home region. Its relationship to the unpopular military government also limited its growth.
And yet the longer the delay until elections, the more resentment against military rule grows. By delaying elections to retain power in the short term, Prayuth makes it less likely pro-military parties will earn electoral support when elections do take place.
Regime not yet confident
With the election repeatedly delayed, and parties facing a variety of challenges, the electoral landscape may yet change significantly.
The junta is counting on a deeply divided parliament, as that would allow an outsider prime minister – Prayuth – to emerge. The delay in elections may signal that the regime is not confident it can sufficiently weaken Pheu Thai, nor confident it can gain enough support for pro-military parties to achieve that goal.
James Ockey is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Views exepressed in this article are personal to the author.
– Asia Media Centre