- - Tuesday, October 9, 2018

BANGKOKThailand’s U.S.-backed military government has set a date for long-delayed national elections, but whether the campaign and vote will be exercises in true democracy remains an open question.

Skeptics say they expect the governing junta, dominated by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his supporters, to dominate the debate thanks to heavy censorship, an appointed Senate, and restricted or self-exiled opposition politicians.

Mr. Prayuth, who seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup when he was army commander, is widely perceived to be manipulating the campaign in a bid to extend his prime ministry.

“Why are you so interested in me?” a testy Mr. Prayuth asked reporters who wanted to discuss his political ambitions last month.

“I will decide when I will announce,” he said. “It’s entirely up to me. What’s the point of exposing myself to criticism so soon?”

After multiple delays, the rules governing the election of national lawmakers were published in the Royal Gazette on Sept. 12, clearing the way for a vote by May.

Mr. Prayuth, during a visit to Japan on Tuesday, told reporters that Thailand was on a path to “a sustainable democracy” and insisted “there will be an election in February.”

But with four months to go until a vote, his authoritarian government is facing pressures to ensure a free and fair election.

Thailand’s military junta should immediately lift restrictions on civil and political rights so that upcoming national elections can be free and fair,” the civil liberties group Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“Current laws, policies, and practices of the [ruling junta], which seized power in May 2014, do not permit political parties to freely organize, express their views or campaign,” the rights group said. “As a result, Thailand does not yet have an environment for free and fair elections.”

In Bangkok, more than a dozen pro-democracy activist groups announced the formation of a national network to monitor the campaign and vote.

“We want [elections] to be a chance to return the country to normalcy,” Anusorn Unno, a sociologist at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, told a press briefing, according to the online news publication KhaosodEnglish.com.

“The imposition of laws banning people from expressing themselves freely continues while pro-junta groups continue full-steam. … This is tantamount to electoral cheating,” said Narongsak Niamsorn, a representative of law reform advocacy group iLaw.

The course of the vote could have major implications for the Trump administration, which has sought to revive ties with one of America’s oldest allies in the region after a period of distinct cooling under President Obama. Mr. Prayuth, who scored a friendly Oval Office audience with President Trump in October 2017, has choices to make as the vote nears.

The prime minister could rely on a base of voters who are impressed by his hard-line rule, which crushed political street violence and re-established a crucial rapport with Washington.

He also could find himself overseeing a squabbling, divided hung parliament under a 2017 constitution he won in a national referendum. National elections are to be held for the revamped 500-seat House of Representatives.

The junta will appoint a 250-member Senate, including six seats reserved for the heads of the army, navy, air force and national police, plus the military’s supreme commander and defense secretary.

Familiar faces

The regime initially said it would permit elections in 2015 but postponed them annually until finally agreeing to the timetable next year. Despite the delays, the government will face some familiar faces standing in the way of another term in power.

Mr. Prayuth’s main opponent remains former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a polarizing, billionaire populist who critics say had an authoritarian streak of his own.

Mr. Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 military coup, in which Mr. Prayuth participated, and is an international fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence for conflict of interest should he return to Thailand.

While abroad, Mr. Thaksin used his popular support and personal fortune to propel his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to win the 2011 election and become prime minister. But in the move that smoothed the path for Mr. Prayuth’s rise to power in Bangkok, Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted from her post in 2014 for “criminal negligence” — two weeks before Mr. Prayuth staged a second coup in less than a decade.

Ms. Yingluck fled overseas to avoid a five-year prison sentence.

Mr. Thaksin has shown signs he does not intend to fade from the scene.

“There are some people who got rich from these two coups, but there are many more who suffered worse, and our beloved Thailand has been viewed unfavorably by people around the world,” Mr. Thaksin, 69, recently posted on his Facebook page. “Hasn’t our country suffered enough?”

Kasit Piromya, a former member of the Democrat Party, which opposes Mr. Thaksin and Ms. Yingluck, said Mr. Thaksin’s “party, personality cult and populist policy measures” are Mr. Prayuth’s biggest threats in the election.

Prayuth and his allies have to be certain that they will have the majority before the holding of the election,” Mr. Kasit said in an interview last month. “They will not go to the election in order to lose,” Mr. Kasit said in an interview last month.

“The constitution and related laws are not democratic, so an election in substance cannot be democratic,” he said.

When asked how democratic the campaign would be, Tom Kruesopon, a former senior adviser to Ms. Yingluck’s For Thais Party, replied, “Less than the USA’s, more than North Korea’s.”

Rising star

Rising political star Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 39, heads the Future Forward Party, offering a liberal, anti-junta stance without much of the baggage of Thailand’s faction-plagued recent past. Political handicappers say the wealthy Mr. Thanathorn — his family owns the country’s largest auto parts manufacturer and has major publishing assets — and his party need more seasoning.

Mr. Thanathorn “will win some seats, but their total lack of understanding of the Thai political culture will undermine their chance for real significance,” Mr. Kruesopon said.

Two senior party members and Mr. Thanathorn face charges of violating the Computer Crime Act for posting on Facebook statements about Mr. Prayuth that the junta said are false.

The act has been used regularly to censor conversations on the internet, and violators face up to five years in prison plus fines.

“The use of the Computer Crime Act is used with the objective to silence us, threaten us, to make politics of fear happen in this country,” Mr. Thanathorn said after being fingerprinted and questioned by police on Sept. 17.

Though Mr. Thaksin remains overseas, his adversaries — including Mr. Prayuth — will not enjoy an easy victory.

Prayuth seems to be the most likely candidate to lead the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party. But he is not a popular figure despite military propaganda,” said Patrick Jory, a researcher at Australia’s Queensland University School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry.

“The conservative Democrat Party, which provided the main political opposition to Thaksin’s parties since 2001, now looks weak and divided. Their leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is tainted not only by his role in the May 2010 killings, but also his involvement in the whistleblowing protests that provided the pretext for the 2014 coup,” Mr. Jory said.

In 2010, Mr. Abhisit presided over a military crackdown against a nine-week insurrection in Bangkok that killed 90 people — mostly pro-election “Red Shirt” partisans who supported Mr. Thaksin.

Mr. Abhisit is also linked to anti-election, whistleblowing protesters in 2014 that helped cripple Ms. Yingluck’s administration, paving the way for then-Gen. Prayuth’s putsch.

Today, younger “aspiring politicians” inside Mr. Abhisit’s Democracy Party want it to become a “New Democrat Party.”

Early handicappers say the main contenders are the Palang Pracharat Party, which supports Mr. Prayuth, and the nominee of Mr. Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party, who has yet to be named.

“Only the Pheu Thai Party and the Future Forward Party have been very clear that they are not going to support the military, whereas the Democrat Party remains reluctant to absolutely shut down the possibility of working with the military-coalition government after” the election, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science faculty member at northeast Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani University.

“The Pheu Thai Party remains largely popular among rural voters in the north and northeast, while the Future Forward Party is starting to gain its support from young and [new] voters,” Mr. Titipol said.

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