Commentary: Calm before storm or hope for a new future? What Thai elections may bring
The threat of violence remains as Thais go to the polls on Sunday (Mar 24), says political and security risk expert Ross Darrell Feingold.
SINGAPORE: Sunday’s House of Representatives election in Thailand will be the first general election following the 2014 military coup that overthrew a previously elected civilian government led by Yingluck Shinawatra.
While the election will result in the transition from a military government to a unique system of governance per the structure created under the 2017 Constitution, it is unlikely that the nearly 20-year three-way division in Thai politics among political parties led by the Shinawatra family with support from the rural poor, political parties supported by urban and wealthier voters, and the military will abate.
Corporate and leisure travellers to Thailand need to know that security risks will not end with Sunday’s polling day, and may well persist for an extended period of time as votes are tallied and the results announced.
IF HISTORY IS ANY GUIDE
In the 20th century, Thai politics was known for a cycle of military coups that deposed civilian governments. In recent years, an intense divisiveness has been added to political discourse.
With the support of rural working class voters mostly in Thailand’s northern provinces often referred to as Red Shirts, populist Thaksin Shinawatra’s initial election victory in 2001 followed by victories in 2005 and 2006, a successor party’s victory in 2007, and his sister’s election victory in 2011, exposed how deep this divide is.
Thaksin’s political organisation is contesting the election, now as the Pheu Thai Party, which replaced the People's Power Party that had earlier replaced Thaksin's original Thai Rak Thai Party (Thailand’s Constitutional Court having dissolved the latter two).
Other leading parties include the Democrat Party favoured by urban voters (known as Yellow Shirts) that led a coalition government from 2008 to 2011 after the pro-Thaksin government was forced out of power when its party was dissolved.
The other two groups comprise the Future Forward Party, which has attracted international media coverage for its appeal to younger voters and promises of transparency in government, as well as the Phalang Pracharat Party aligned with the military and the prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Having learned from experience and as insurance against forced dissolution, the Red Shirts have divided into Pheu Thai and smaller parties Pheu Tham, Pheu Chart, and Thai Raksa Chart.
The latter was recently dissolved following a failed attempt to nominate as a candidate for prime minister Princess Ubolratana, a sister of King Vajiralongkorn, who called his sister’s entry into politics gravely inappropriate.
Although the names of the political parties change, recent history indicates that post-election, divisiveness and the potential for unrest will remain part of Thai politics.
ROADMAP TO VOTING MAY NOT BE A ROADMAP TO STABILITY
The military government has repeatedly delayed the election. However, on Jan 23, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, also known as King Rama X, issued a royal decree to endorse the first general election since the coup, which was followed by the Electoral Commission (EC)’s announcement that the election will be held on Mar 24.
Thailand’s new election law requires the EC to complete the election within 60 days of a vote, after which parliament must convene within fifteen days with the King presiding over its opening.
This timeline creates several challenges for the outgoing military-led government and the EC. Although the election law is ambiguous whether the requirement to “complete” refers to voting or announcing the results, the current schedule avoids this if voting is held on Mar 24 and results announced by May 8.
The King’s coronation will entail a three-day series of events scheduled between May 4 and May 6, which due to coronation-related rituals and preparation that occur throughout Thailand in the preceding weeks, puts enormous pressure on the military and government to ensure these events take place without political or terrorism-related violence or protests.
POLLING DAY PERIOD STABILITY
The current military government executed its coup with minimal violence and has generally prevented outbreaks of civil unrest during its rule.
However, the approach of the election has seen several violent incidents or threats against politicians aligned with the Red Shirts, including the murder in Laos of two dissidents and the alleged stalking of Pheu Thai candidate for prime minister Sudarat Keyuraphan.
Unhappiness over voting procedures and the advantages these confer on the incumbent military-led government may be a potential source of instability. Widespread anger over a government attempt to remove party logos from ballot papers forced the government to retreat.
Still, the EC has imposed strict campaign rules that include a registration requirement for online media and a candidate numbering system that some say will confuse Red Shirt voters.
READ: The return of Prayut as prime minister almost certain when Thais head to polls in March, a commentary
Prohibitions include references to the royal family, using one’s own media company for electioneering (which impacts politicians who own media companies), the use of hate speech, and cash gifts to voters.
Combined with the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the current government, we should anticipate an immediate reaction on Sunday or in the weeks ahead that could include rallies and other forms of protest outside polling stations, government buildings, and military installations.
POTENTIAL FOR POST-ELECTION VIOLENCE
Of more concern to corporate and leisure travellers is the potential for unrest weeks and months after polling day, especially given the length of time allowed until the election result must be announced and subsequently, a government formed by the combination of parties.
Thailand’s new constitution ensures that the military will maintain influence, if not form the next government via pro-military parties. Among the many provisions in place to facilitate this is that the prime minister need not be a member of the House. Should the coalition negotiation process after the votes are counted result in such an outcome, or the prime minister be changed in the future via such processes, popular protest can result long after the election.
Yellow Shirts dissatisfied with the December 2007 election results engaged in protests throughout 2008 which culminated in the occupation of Bangkok’s airports and the dissolution of the Red Shirts-led governing party.
Pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protestors subsequently occupied parts of Bangkok in the spring of 2010, which the police and military brought to an end using lethal force that resulted in a reported 91 deaths.
These duelling protests, long after elections, paralysed transportation in and out of Thailand as well as within Bangkok. Thailand may be at risk of experiencing similar civil unrest for months after the current election.
King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation in May will be a milestone in this regard. In addition to the coronation’s constitutional and cultural significance, related events might occur concurrent to the announcement of election results.
The Red Shirts’ existing antipathy towards the monarchy combined with dissatisfaction with the election result could make the coronation a trigger event for protests, which would justify a robust response by security forces to prevent the unrest that occurred in 2008 and 2010.
TERRORISM AND INSURGENCY RISK
The insurgency in the three southern Thailand provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani led by Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) has re-erupted after relatively less activity in 2017 and 2018. Drive-by shootings and roadside bombs have resulted in the deaths of monks and police.
As both pro-Thaksin and military-aligned governments have fought the BRN without reaching a peace agreement, the insurgents are unlikely to have a favourable outlook for cooperation with the next government, with the likelihood for violence thus continuing to be high.
Of recent concern in areas where foreign visitors frequent, the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok was bombed in 2015, killing 20 people including Chinese tourists, with the Thai government accusing Uighur militants angry over Thailand’s forced repatriation of 109 Uighurs to China.
Thailand has continued to deport Uighur refugees to China, making areas where foreign corporate and leisure travellers (especially those from China) congregate a potential target if the next government continues the deportation policy.
VISITING THAILAND – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Negative reaction to the election result or the parties and individuals that lead the next government can all lead to public protests for an extended period after the election, and Thailand has a history of politics-related violence.
Foreign visitors are generally immune from political unrest but in the near term, visitors should make an effort to obtain up-to-date information about the release of election results, negotiations to form a government, and public reaction to the new government.
Ross Darrell Feingold is director for business development at SafePro Group, a global security and protection specialist firm.