Strong-Arming The Strong-Man: Strategy In Thailand’s 2019 Elections

A princess, a military dictator and a billionaire enters an election. No one knows who won because the vote tellers forgot their calculators. This might sound like the beginning of a confusing joke but is in fact a description of the recent, equally confusing, Thai election held on the 24th of March. It was Thailand’s first general election since 2014, when the country’s government was toppled by the military. The 2014 coup was Thailand’s 12th successful coup since the introduction of democracy in 1932. This speaks to the powerful role the military has in Thai politics, which has become a central question of debate in Thailand. The election has been portrayed as a battle between pro-democracy parties’ vs. pro-military parties and the result, while not yet finalized, seems to be split in the middle. 

When election day finally arrived it had been five years since the army chief general Prayuth Chan-ocha toppled the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and established the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO). There were many reports of irregularities including nearly 2 million votes that were disqualified as “bad ballots”. When asked what the result of the election were, the  Election Commission chairman responded that he did not have his calculator to do the math then and there. In order to get to the bottom of the suspected irregularities, and to do the correct calculations, the Election Commission gave themselves until May to report the result of the election.

From the numbers that have been presented we know that the three largest parties are, in order, “Pheu Thai”, “Palang Pracharat” and “Future Forward”. These parties ran interesting campaigns all through the election period based on different strategies. What makes that impressive is how it was all done under an authoritarian military regime.

The NCPO maintained, during  their  rule, strict repression of civil and political liberties with reports of imprisonment and abuse of vocal dissidents. Heavy restrictions on freedom-of-speech and assembly were especially enforced and over 100 people were arrested on lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) charges, mostly for posting or sharing critical commentary online of the junta. The junta portrayed themselves as the protectors of the monarchy, who are held in extremely high esteem in Thailand.

Why an election was eventually held is up for discussion. Perhaps the answer lies in the pressure campaigns from domestic media and elites, as well as international actors. There was definitely a growing impatience among Thai people with the junta. Yet the presence of an election should not be interpreted as the junta’s willingness to give up power. When rewriting the constitution, the NCPO created an electoral system which is complicated and practically impossible for large parties opposing the military to win in. The changes include a military appointed senate, and a difficult formula to divide the seats in the house of representatives to disadvantage large parties and benefit medium sized one.

Such a party is “Palang Pracharat” (PPR), who came in second. They are the junta’s proxy party. Created by three cabinet ministers of the NCPO with Prayuth himself as their pick for Prime Minister. Their tactic has been to co-opt politicians from other parties to bank on recognition. While the other candidates spread their message in political debates, Prayuth stayed out of any televised debates claiming the politicians only use eloquent language while he is busy working. It was evident that Prayuth had a distaste for democratic institutions and wanted to distinguish himself and the military from “dirty politicians” and instead be seen as above the game of politics.

When news anchor Orawan Krimwiratkul asked a panel of first-time voters if they thought this was a fair strategy, during a debate held on public television, the majority held up signs displaying thumbs down. The following day she was fired for having a biased studio audience. Orawan getting fired might seem like a footnote in the election, however, it does bring up a valuable question. How are you supposed to win an election if you are not allowed to criticize your opponent? As it turned out the PPR’s two main challengers had two different plans to deal with this, both of which shocked the nation.

Application of candidate for Prime Minister, Princess Ubolratana. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The first strategy came from “Pheu Thai” (PT), Yingluck Shinawatras old party, and the party which won most seats in the election. PT established a sister party called “Thai Raksa Chart” (TRC) in order to beat the new system designed to keep their particular party in check. PT and TRC’s tactic intended to beat Prayuth in his own game. If Prayuth’s strategy was to place the military above the games of politics, only someone who outranked the military could beat him.

On the 8th of February, TRC nominated Princess Ubolratana, the Kings older sister. This shocked Thailand to its core since the monarchy is not supposed to involve themselves in politics, as they are seen as above it. Also, it is against the law to criticize the royal family. In 1972 Princess Ubolratana married an American and in the process lost all her royal titles. This is why TRC argued she was eligible for political office. However, after a dramatic letter from her younger brother, rejecting the nomination on grounds that Ubolratana was still seen as a Princess by the people her candidacy was terminated, and TRC was dissolved as a party.

The second shocking moment of the election was the force of the youth vote. Because the coup happened on an election year, first time voters spanned between 18-25 years old. The oldest first time voter would have been around 12 when the coup against Thaksin took place in 2006. Most have no attachment to that conflict which has colored the discourse of this election. Young people have instead grown frustrated with a system they perceive as corrupt, unjust and defunct.

This is what Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s new party, “Future Forward” (FFW), tapped into. They came third in the election. Their primary agenda was very simple: restore democracy and get the military out of politics. Even though their leader is a billionaire, FFW ran a modest campaign largely based on online campaigns, relying entirely on donations from party members and supporters. Their message resonated especially with young people, and they quickly became one of the most popular parties in Thailand, much to the junta’s surprise. If the NCPO believed the system would silence their opponents, they were wrong. Instead social media in Thailand blew up with pro-Thanathorn and anti-NCPO posts and hashtags.

Thanatorn after police hearing. Image: Twitter.

While PT tried to beat the junta at their own game, FFW chose instead to point out all the ways the game was unfair. PT might have won the most seats, but they failed at getting a large enough majority to elect a Prime Minister, even with the announcement of a pro-democracy coalition with six other parties. The stunt with Princess Ubolratana got TRC dissolved which probably hurt PT in the end.

FFW, on the other hand, outperformed many established parties and quickly became the NCPO’s largest threat. Thanathorn was charged with sedition and breaking cybercrime law for activities related to political activism before the election. He awaits a trial which has been postponed since 2018. It is further proof of the threat he poses to the junta that they try to get rid of him. He is a clear voice for change, transparency, and justice who, just like the six million Thai’s that voted for FFW, sees this election as a joke but refuses to imagine the future of Thailand as one.

Kevin Amphan

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