By Jan Servaes*
BRUSSELS, 7 May 2023 (IDN) — The 69-year-old General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who has been Prime Minister of Thailand since his coup in 2014, is again a candidate in the elections on 14 May 2023. He refuses to participate in debates but fully indulges during the Songkran New Year festivities. It had been since he was 15 years old that he had been so wild, he told the Thai Examiner.
Although Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy for nearly a century, it also has a long history of military coups that have overthrown elected governments. The most recent putsch, which brought the current prime minister into office in 2014, is the twelfth since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.
In its 2023 Freedom in the World Report, the US NGO Freedom House states that Thailand is “not free”, scoring only 30 out of 100, with 100 meaning that a given country’s citizens can exercise all of their guaranteed rights. But last February, the Thai government crowed that Thailand’s democracy index had improved significantly, citing the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ranking for 2022, which saw the country jump 17 places from 72nd to 55th out of 167 countries. But even big brother The Economist questioned this ranking.
Thailand is a test case for whether and how a middle-income country with dysfunctional and limited democratic policies can overcome the political barriers to the structural reforms needed to elevate it to an advanced economy. After all, Southeast Asia’s second-largest and once dynamic economy is struggling under the weight of growing inequality , an ageing population, a deteriorating education system, and low-yield rice cultivation, writes Harvard Fellow Richard Yarrow in EastAsia Forum.
“The challenges of Thailand’s demographics, education and agriculture appear symptomatic of an unequal economy with resources and power concentrated around large conglomerates and the wealthy.” Above all, it needs “trustworthy, fair governance committed to addressing the country’s worsening structural problems,” concludes Yarrow. And the latter seems to be missing.
The struggle for ‘power’
The main opposition—the ‘red’ Pheu Thai party controlled by the billionaire Shinawatra family—will face parties aligned with the Thai establishment. Thaksin, who still lives in exile outside Thailand, has named his 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn ‘Ung-Ing’ Shinawatra as leader. She is the most popular candidate for the prime minister so far, leading polls ahead of Prayuth and Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the other opposition party Move Forward.
Pita, the 42-year-old businessman and chairman of the Move Forward party, has already openly refused to join a government with Prayut’s United Thai Nation Party. He is especially popular among younger voters in Bangkok, because of Move Forward’s call for reform of the lèse-majeste law, if not its complete abolition.
These young protesters are also demanding reform of the monarchy, and some harbour republican sentiments. On the other hand, the Pheu Thai Party, as a rather socially conservative party, has refused to commit to a change in the law.
For most of these young people, the question of the monarchy is central to the need for reform in the country. The fact that virtually all mainstream Thai press media routinely self-censor anything deemed mildly critical of the monarchy or negative of the institution means, according to Amnesty International, that there is a fundamental lack of press freedom and freedom of expression.
Current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is contesting the election with the newly formed United Thai Nation Party (UTN), a loose alliance of political factions loyal to General Prayut. His deputy prime minister, former General Prawit Wongsuwan, will continue to lead the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).
However, they need to restore confidence if they want to extend their terms in office, as the military government has fallen out of favor with most Thais. They apparently do not believe the election promise of both former General Prayut and Prawit to “transcend the political divide” and “send the army back to barracks”. Rumors of a coup resurfaced in March, and both Prayut and Prawit had to play down the prospect of another military coup.
After all, the military still looms large in many of the country’s affairs. It even has 250 junta-appointed legislators who, under the current junta-backed constitution, will have the right to vote alongside the 500 elected MPs to choose the next prime minister.
This means that the 14 May general election cannot be described as “fair”. “A third of the people who will vote for the next prime minister were selected by the then junta leader General Prayut,” notes Pravit Rojanaphruk cynically in a special feature on Thailand.
Opposition party Pheu Thai hopes voters will give it a landslide victory of at least 310 MPs. Only then can the 250 senators appointed by the junta not be the final arbiter of who will be the next prime minister.
Other mayor parties playing a role in this upcoming election are the ‘old’ pro-government Democratic Party and the Bhumjaithai Party. Its leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, 52, is the current health minister and has been nominated by his Bhumjaithai party as their prime ministerial candidate. Anutin has been regularly criticized for managing the country’s COVID-19 situation and for his controversial policies to decriminalize cannabis.
Anutin has landed a quintessential Thai opponent in the person of 61-year-old ‘Super Pimp’ Chuvit Kamolvisit, who built an empire of strip clubs and massage parlors before becoming a whistleblower and an anti-corruption campaigner ahead of the May 14 election launched on the street. Chuvit spares no parties or politicians in his one-man campaign against entrenched corruption and what he sees as the social ills to relax the country’s cannabis laws.
Patronage and populism
What does the election look like in light of Thailand’s two-decade power struggle? To what extent will the rural-urban divide, socio-economic class or demographics play a role in voting behaviour?
First of all, Thais do not follow political programs or abstract ideas, but follow leaders and charismatic figures based on the “right or wrong, my group” principle. After all, public life is organized on the basis of friendship circles with an influential leader at the top, or the so-called patronage system.
This results in a populist policy that does everything it can to gain the support of the voters. Each political party profiles itself with material short-term promises such as giving a 3,000 baht ($80) allowance to pensioners, raising the minimum daily wage for workers (now @ 340 baht or $10), enforcing a debt moratorium to zero income tax for some, and a payout of 10,000 baht ($275) in “digital” money to 50 million Thais over the age of 16.
At least 3 trillion baht is needed to fulfil the 87 populist policies promised by nine political parties, according to an analysis by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). “Most of these populist policies are short-term solutions aimed at increasing consumer purchasing power, or keeping businesses afloat and expanding,” says The Bangkok Post. But this cannot be called structural solutions.
“People want to see post-election changes, or at least changes to improve their livelihoods, quality of life and environment, among other fundamental changes, that will not be achieved through short-term populist policies,” The Bangkok Post concluded in an editorial. We will know more after 14 May 2023.
* Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1 & 2, 2023 (https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411) [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha on 14 April during Songkran, the Thai New Year. Credit: Thai Examiner.
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