Saturday, 20 Apr 2024

Opinion | An Election Not Quite as It Seems

KHON KAEN, Thailand — On a recent afternoon, the horse tracks of this small northeastern town had the looks of an impromptu music concert for mostly older women, with large crowds packed around a makeshift stage near what seemed to be an unused racing lane. By my count, some 15,000 locals, many of them farmers with weathered skin, had gathered there for a rally of the Pheu Thai party, which calls for better health care, a higher minimum wage and subsidized agriculture prices. An heir to populist parties led by two former prime ministers who were deposed — Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck — Pheu Thai is said to be the front-runner in Sunday’s general election, the first since the military coup of 2014.

These residents of Khon Kaen — many of them disadvantaged people from rural areas, like other so-called red shirts — had come to cheer on Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai’s leading candidate for prime minister. Some 77 parties are running in the election, including Palang Pracharat, a proxy for the military, which has nominated Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who led the 2014 coup, as its candidate for prime minister.

Ms. Sudarat struggled to make it to the racetrack: Too many cheering supporters blocked her way. When she finally got onstage, she seemed bowed down by the many orange flower leis they had placed around her neck. “Are you happier now than you were five years ago?” she asked. “Do you want to sell your agricultural produce on Mars?” — a reference to Mr. Prayuth’s comment once, amid a global glut in rubber, that Thai farmers may have to sell theirs on that planet.

But the crowd didn’t want to hear just about politics, and Ms. Sudarat knew that. “You can hug me! You can kiss me!” she said playfully. “But please don’t pinch me! I’m bruised from all the pinching!”

A few days earlier, on the other side of town, a group of academics, business owners and aging democracy activists had met with Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a young leader of the Future Forward Party, to discuss the fledging party’s long-term strategy in the region. Future Forward — created only a year ago by the 38-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit — is popular among young, tech-savvy voters and progressives who want to break with old-school politics and players (including the Shinawatras). The party also wants to keep the military out of politics for good and reverse decades of centralization by giving more power and more money to local authorities.

The Northeast represents about one-third of the country’s population of more than 68 million, and for nearly two decades the way the Northeast has voted, Thailand has too. That outcome seems less certain this year — largely, the government’s opponents say, because it has rigged the system in its favor.

In a recent survey of voters in the Northeast by the E-Saan Poll project at Khon Kaen University, two-thirds of respondents said they were likely to vote for Pheu Thai or Future Forward in Sunday’s election. But according to a study by the Nation media group early this month, pro-democracy parties looked like they would fall short of securing a majority of seats in the 500-member House of Representatives (and that was before one of those parties was dissolved).

I have met leaders of all the main pro-democracy parties in recent weeks, and they were cautiously optimistic that together they could nonetheless take a majority of seats in the lower house. But even if they win, they could be relegated to being, curiously, a kind of majority opposition: Under the military-drafted 2017 Constitution, the next prime minister is to be selected by a vote of the full Legislature — which also includes 250 senators nominated by the military.

The Constitution does allow a majority of the lower house to hold a no-confidence vote on the prime minister — meaning that Mr. Prayuth, even if selected for the post, might not be certain to keep it for long. On the other hand, the Constitution also reserves major, overriding powers for unelected, military-controlled bodies — for example, the one tasked with overseeing a vast 20-year development plan.

And at least until a new government is formed, the Constitution can be superseded altogether — thanks to a document that predates it. Section 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution essentially allows the head of the junta — today, Mr. Prayuth — to do anything he deems necessary for the sake of not only national security, but also the monarchy, national economics or “public unity and harmony,” among other things.

But Mr. Prayuth, or other generals, would be resorting to such strong-arm tactics at their own risk, for opposition to their regime is deepening and becoming more sophisticated.

Many Thais live at the country’s periphery, geographic and otherwise, and the periphery still wants democracy. Sunday’s election is unlikely to bring anything like that, but the campaign has shown that pro-democracy parties continue to make strides, strengthening their popular appeal and refining their platforms.

The great unknown of this election is what role Thailand’s relatively new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, might play, if only symbolically. (The Thai royal family is, avowedly, above politics.) Since coming to power in late 2016, King Vajiralongkorn has surprised some observers with his assertiveness, especially toward the military.

Last month, another member of the royal family also defied expectations. The king’s older sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, announced her intention to run for prime minister — and on the ticket of the decidedly grass-roots, Northeast-centered Thai Raksa Chart, another party thought to be aligned with Mr. Thaksin.

Her candidacy lasted only a few hours, before the king — and later, the election commission — dismissed it. (Although Ms. Ubolratana renounced her title as princess years ago, her foray into politics was deemed to be “inappropriate.”) Then, the military-dominated constitutional court disbanded Thai Raksa Chart, disqualifying its members from running in Sunday’s election.

The party’s dissolution was a setback for Thai democrats, of course. But looking past the twists and turns and apparent tensions exposed by this episode, it also seemed to suggest within the royal family a growing sympathy for a tranche of Thai society well beyond its traditional base, the generally moneyed and powerful, Bangkok-based hyper-monarchists known as yellow shirts.

To put the point differently: Thailand’s election Sunday may not be quite what it seems. More than a vote of confidence in the military, it may be a test of the monarchy’s willingness to listen to the majority.

David Streckfuss, a historian, is the author of “Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-Majesté.”

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