After five years of extended military rule since the coup in 2014, followed by the death of iconic King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, electoral politics are tentatively resuming in Thailand. On March 24, more than 50 million voters nationwide will cast their votes for candidates vying for the country's House of Representatives. But after 15 years punctuated by bloody protests, coups and toppled governments, the memory of Thailand's tumultuous past remains fresh. And many are wary that the country could swing back into the cyclical disruptions that have jeopardized its status as a manufacturing powerhouse in Southeast Asia.
Indeed, political forces loyal to exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — whose maverick ascent to power defined this disruptive period — are already rallying numerous parties under a "pro-Thaksin" faction in the hopes of forming a government. But even if one of these parties wins enough seats to do so, it will still be forced to operate within the tight confines of a constitution purposely-designed to check civilian power, maintain continuity of policy and prevent the return of the political chaos of the pre-coup period.
While the thawing of Thailand's long-frozen politics threatens a return to the country's tumultuous pre-coup period, its current junta government has imposed strong limits within the legislative system that will help check such an eventuality. But if Bangkok fumbles its next political transition, it risks losing out on the economic benefits that China's slowdown has afforded Southeast Asian countries.
The State of Play
While more than 80 parties will field candidates on the ballot in March, the three groupings that have shaped Thai politics for the past two decades — the pro-military faction, the establishment bloc and the pro-Thaksin parties — will still define the contest. The Palang Pracharath party leads the pro-military grouping with junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as its candidate for prime minister — backed by the like-minded, smaller Ruampalang Prachachart Thai and People's Reform Party.
Meanwhile, the establishment bloc consists of the somewhat besieged parties of the Thai political scene, which are now trying to chart a course between the pro-Thaksin parties they have long clashed with and the military influence they see as a threat to civilian rule. Here, the country's oldest party, the Democrat Party, leads the pack, along with the Bhumjaithai and Chartthaipattana parties.
But the most potent political force in Thailand in recent decades — and the group with the best shot at forming a government after the next election — is the pro-Thaksin faction. The group is led by the Pheu Thai party, which governed before the coup between 2011-2014. To increase their chances at the polls, politicians aligned with the former prime minister are also running under the umbrella of smaller parties, including Pheu Tham and Pheu Chart.
An Uphill Climb
Thailand's military government, however, has carefully prepared for the transition back toward quasi-civilian rule. The country's latest constitution has a number of articles that strictly limit the scope of the civilian government, which will make it difficult for Thaksin's political allies to return to power and, if they do, will confine the latitude of their actions.
In order for any grouping to form a government, it must secure more than 50 percent of the 750 total seats in the country's bicameral legislature, the National Assembly. But of those, only the 500 seats of the country's House of Representatives (the lower house) are up for election. The remaining 250 seats of the Senate (the upper house) are entirely appointed by the current military junta, with six seats occupied by military officials.
This means that in the next election, any party from the pro-Thaksin or establishment factions will need to cobble together 376 votes in the lower house (or a massive 75 percent of elected seats) to come into power. By contrast, the military-backed factions would only need to secure 25 percent of the seats (or 126 votes) up for grabs, which — combined with the military-appointed senatorial seats — would allow them to form a government.
In adding to the military's advantage, senators also serve five-year terms and, if no replacements are appointed, continue their duties even after that point. This means their tenure exceeds that of house members, who will be elected for four-year terms in March — making it all the more difficult for either of the nonmilitary factions to reach the threshold needed to take power.
Regardless of which party actually forms the government, however, the one-third (or more) control of the National Assembly by the military and its proxies will give it a strong hand in checking civilian economic policies, political reforms or any attempts to undermine military or royal authority.
Constitutional amendments, for one, require the support of at least one-third of the junta-appointed Senate to make it through the three legislative readings required for passage — and then must usually pass a nationwide referendum. Democratically elected lawmakers can also be ejected from office for a variety of offenses, such as financial or alleged corruption issues, with some lawmakers able to refer such an action to the country's unelected constitutional court. Moreover, senators can be ejected from their seats for aligning with a political party, providing a check on coordination across the divide.
But in addition to the junta's direct checks, the Thai monarchy could also help to limit civilian rule. The monarchy and military have long served as pillars of stability in Thailand, with the country's long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej carefully using his position to resolve political crises. Although it initially appeared that his son, current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, would be a weaker monarch, he has already moved to amass power and remains a force to be reckoned with.
Since taking the throne in 2016, Vajiralongkorn has gained direct control of the monarchy's $30 billion to $60 billion in assets, quadrupled the monarchy's personal security forces and forced constitutional amendments that (among other things) could allow the king to replace the prime minister in a political crisis. While it is still unclear how tightly the king will coordinate with the military, the king sent a strong signal in February by swiftly blocking his sister's bid for prime minister, who was running under one of Thaksin's parties — thereby eliminating a key challenger to the military's candidate for office.
Preserving Economic Growth
But even if one of the civilian-led blocs is able to gain enough votes in the next election, Thailand's next government will still need to maintain the junta's efforts to continue advancing the country's economic rebound. In the years leading up to the coup, annual Thai gross domestic product growth plunged from 7.24 percent in 2012 to under 1 percent in 2014. And though it still lags the average growth of its Southeast Asian peers (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam), Thailand's GDP growth has gradually recovered to 4.6 percent in 2018.
Disruptions following the election will be far cry from the chaos surrounding the 2014 coup, due to the need to prevent another swing back to military rule and the shared interest in preserving Thailand's economic growth.
But of these measures, the junta's $54 billion Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) has been its crown jewel. The plan, which was approved in February 2018, aims to develop the country's eastern seaboard provinces into a regional economic hub by 2021 through infrastructure development, industrial zones, tourism and urbanization initiatives.
China has already stepped up as a major backer of the EEC, with pledges by both private and state-owned entities, including China Communications Construction Co., Huawei and Alibaba. Several ports and aviation projects are already in motion. And trials for a 5G network supplied by Huawei are also in progress, with Alibaba saying it wants to put in place a $320 million distribution center in the EEC.
Additionally, Thailand has become a key site for budding cooperation between China and Japan in the hopes of offsetting their geopolitical competition, with the two countries agreeing to invest in several infrastructure projects together in the EEC region. As part of another consortium, Chinese and Japanese companies are also jointly bidding to build a $6.8 billion high-speed rail link that would connect the country's three major airports.
Related in part to the EEC, Thailand is now an important link in China's massive, multicountry Belt and Road Initiative as well. Beijing has set out to build a 608-kilometer (378-mile) high-speed rail line connecting the Laotian border at Nong Khai to Bangkok as part of a larger railway meant to extend from the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming all the way down to Malaysia.
While the Laos portion of the rail link is well underway, the Thai leg has only just begun. Further progress will be kick-started in April, with completion intended to occur in 2023. But in seeing the project through, Beijing is seeking assurance that Thailand will not be subject to whims of democratic disruption following the election.
In their bids for power, both the Pheu Thai party (of the pro-Thaksin bloc) and the Democrat Party (of the establishment bloc) have reportedly agreed to back the junta's EEC project. The Democrats said they would review the massive infrastructure components of the plan (such as the airport high-speed rail), while Pheu Thai has proposed expanding the EEC initiative to all of Thailand's provinces, along with additional high-speed rail linkages.
But regardless of what they're now saying on the campaign trail, the legal and constitutional checks in place will make it difficult for these parties to significantly alter the projects already in motion. The EEC is part of the economic component of the constitutionally mandated, 20-Year National Strategy, which the military junta created along with an unelected National Strategy Committee to enforce it. The committee closely monitors the strategy (and, by extension, the EEC plan) and can report noncompliance to the country's National Anti-Corruption Commission, which can then issue suspensions, expulsion or even jail time.
That said, given the high hurdles for civilian parties and the institutionalized power of the military lawmakers, the most likely outcome of the upcoming vote is a divided set of party lawmakers. Within this context, other parties will be tempted to ally with the military, which will act as kingmaker. Although the Democrat Party has said it will not support the junta's candidate for prime minister, an alliance with the military-aligned parties and lawmakers will be an especially alluring option for the establishment party, due to its long-standing role in mediating between the monarchy and military to counter Thaksin.
But perhaps most important, Pheu Thai's popularity means it has a strong chance of securing a plurality of seats, though a majority in the lower house is less likely. Such a limited position could lead the group to resort to more extreme measures, such as mobilizing supporters in the streets. But due to the need to prevent another swing back to military rule and the shared interest in preserving Thailand's economic growth, any disruptions would be a far cry from the chaos surrounding the 2014 coup.