Commentary: In Thailand, there is only one certainty – the army remains key

Commentary: In Thailand, there is only one certainty – the army remains key

Thailand’s election has shifted sand – but not who calls the shots, say Kroll’s Richard Dailly and Ned Jirapat Lee.

Supporters of Pheu Thai Party react after unofficial results, during the general election in Bangkok
Supporters of Pheu Thai Party react after unofficial results, during the general election in Bangkok, Thailand, Mar 24, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

SINGAPORE: As things stand on Monday (Mar 25), it is looking as though General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s Palang Pracharat party will be in a position to form the next Thai government with or without the coalition assistance of like-minded and opportunistic parties.

If coalition partners are sought, it would be Bhumjaithai, led by construction billionaire Anutin Charnvirakul, which famously campaigned on a platform of legalising marijuana; the Democrats, whose leader, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, stepped down on Sunday evening, and the fiercely ultra conservative Action Coalition for Thailand Party (ACT), led by the divisive Suthep Thaugsuban. 

The 2017 Constitution allows for a non-MP to be appointed prime minister, paving the way for General Prayut Chan-o-cha to retain his position at the helm of the country.

A coalition would provide a Palang Pracharat-Prayut led government with the additional seats necessary to ease the passage of legislation, but would also result in more internal horse trading and compromise. 

A woman looks at the candidate list of the upcoming Thai election at a polling station in Bangkok
A woman looks at the candidate list of the upcoming Thai election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

THE RETURN OF BINARY POLITICS?

Although this might create a stable conservative coalition government, an opposition coalition consisting of Pheu Thai, whose predecessors were historically connected to Thaksin and Future Forward, led by the charismatic billionaire Thanathorn Juangroograungkit, would have enough seats and popular support to create challenges to a possible Palang Pracharat-led coalition government.

Thai politics has been binary for the last 20 years. The population had been essentially split between the conservative Democrat party and the more socially democratic Pheu Thai.

READ: Rivals voice suspicions as Thailand's pro-army party leads election race

After five years of military control and a tightly managed election, during which opposition parties were unable to campaign until December 2018, and the Election Commission was accused of favouring Palang Pracharat, it looks likely that historic divisions between the conservative elite and those favouring a more progressive outlook, fundamentally remain.  

GREATER INTEREST FROM YOUNGER VOTERS

However, it could be argued that current positioning and choreographing of Thai politics is becoming more focused on ideology and ideas, rather than personalities. It is possible that moving forward, Thai politics will not be cast simply as Thaksin versus Prayut.

Why? For one, this election has demonstrated a new interest in politics among younger voters who gravitated towards Future Forward, exemplified by the reaction of younger voters to the king’s appeal to “vote for good people” who, en masse, tweeted that they were old enough to think for themselves.

This is unprecedented in recent Thai politics and could indicate another societal rift is in the making.

People line up for their early vote for the upcoming Thai election at a polling station in Bangkok
People line up for their early vote for the upcoming Thai election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

CATCHING THE ATTENTION OF THE ARMY

The shifting sands, strong performance by Future Forward, youth empowerment, close numbers in parliament which will inevitably create some normal political friction, will surely have caught the attention of the army. 

Its ultra-conservative leader, General Apirat, has stated that he would not hesitate to step in again and take control of the country, should there be unrest.

READ: Army chief General Apirat casts a long shadow over Thai election, a commentary

READ: 'Confusing' Thai election vote count caused by media: Election Commission

Should this happen, he would likely be supported by Suthep Thaugsuban, the de facto leader of the pro-military party ACT who led the anti-government protest in 2014 that paved way for a coup d'état launched by Prayut, though it is unclear at this stage how Suthep will interpret the result of the election.

The election result is not yet set in stone. 

The key players who will influence the outcome are a combination of the Bhumjaithai leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, who could yet be appointed prime minister as a compromise candidate, the new emerging Democrat leadership, following Abhisit Vejjajiva’s resignation on Sunday, and of course, the staunch royalist General Apirat, the head of the army, who is known to be close to the king.

Richard Dailly is managing director of business intelligence and investigations at Kroll, a division of Duff and Phelps in Singapore. Ned Jirapat Lee is associate at the same company.

Source: CNA/sl

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