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From Military Rule to Democracy? The High Stakes of Thailand’s Upcoming Election
Thailand is gearing up for a pivotal election that could determine the country’s political future. With a history of military coups and authoritarianism, Thailand’s journey towards democracy has been up and down. In this article, we will look at the background of Thailand’s recent political history, the stakes of the upcoming election, and the challenges facing Thailand’s democratic development.
A rocky, ninety-one-year journey towards democracy
Thailand has a long history of military rule and political instability. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the country has suffered 13 successful and nine unsuccessful coups, with the military frequently intervening in politics to safeguard its interests. In 2014, the military staged yet another coup, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The subsequent period of military rule, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, was marked by restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms. The 2017 Constitution, drafted under military rule, gave the military-appointed Senate unprecedented power and restricted political activity, leading to criticism from human rights organisations and the international community.
Still, protests erupted in Thailand in 2020 and 2021, led by student activists and opposition groups, calling for democratic reforms and constitutional changes. The government responded with a heavy-handed approach, charging hundreds of individuals and young activists with offences like sedition and royal defamation. Some were still detained in prison as they were denied bail.
The stakes of the upcoming election
The upcoming election on Sunday, 14th of May, will not be the first since the military coup in 2014. The previous election ended with the military’s controversial victory. Although the opposition Pheu Thai Party won the most seats, the military formed the government due to a built-in advantage in the 2017 Constitution. So, the stakes of the upcoming election are high, with the election seen as a crucial step towards restoring democracy in Thailand. Several candidates from pro-democracy and pro-junta parties are running for office.
According to the latest poll, the opposition candidates have always upheld their lead. Pita Limjaroenrat received the highest number of votes as the preferred candidate for the next Prime Minister of Thailand. Pita is the leader of the Move Forward Party and one of the key figures in the pro-democracy movement. He is popular among young people as he promises to introduce a ‘better future’ to Thailand. While Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, came second in the poll, she is seen as the party’s attempt to regain power seized by the 2014 coup.
Meanwhile, the current Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, is running for re-election despite declining popularity under the newly formed Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party. He is competing against a former close ally, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, notorious for being instrumental in the military’s influence over the government. The fragment of Prayuth and Prawit is expected to favour opposition candidates, as it may cause a division in the Senate vote.
However, the military has played a dominant role in Thai politics for decades. It retains significant influence over key institutions such as the judiciary and the bureaucracy. The military’s involvement in the election has raised concerns about the fairness and transparency of the process. For instance, the Office of the Election Commission of Thailand has been criticised for confusing the ballot layout and inconveniently facilitating the overseas voting process. Moreover, the vote-counting process is expected not to be broadcasted, raising more concerns over alleged voting irregularities.
As expected, many irregularities were reported for the early election on the 7th of May, including authorities filling out the wrong numbers on polling envelopes and information about the opposition candidates being missing from an information board at various polling stations. These regularities pulled at least 100,000 volunteers to monitor the upcoming elections and the vote-counting process.
Challenges Facing Thailand’s Democracy
According to the national poll and Thai politics experts, the Pheu Thai Party is expected to win the most prominent seats in the House of Representatives and form a new democratic government. It means that the hopes for democratic transition in Thailand are close to becoming a reality despite the concerns of electoral irregularities and allegations of cheating attempts by the ruling pro-junta regime.
Yet, numerous challenges stand in the way. Thailand’s state of human rights and the rule of law remains problematic. Ongoing protests, censorship, and suppression of dissent undermine democratic development in the country. The current government has used harsh measures to suppress dissent, including arrests, detention, and social media censorship.
Furthermore, following a period of political polarisation and turmoil, Thai voters are still deeply divided between those supporting the status quo (pro-government, pro-junta and pro-monarchy) and those seeking political reform (pro-democracy). The split between the two political stances is so severe that the death and disappearance of numerous political activists in recent decades is justified in some pro-monarchy and pro-junta circles.
The upcoming election in Thailand is a crucial moment in the country’s history. Thailand is at a crossroads. The election will be a vital test of the country’s commitment to democracy. While there are certainly challenges ahead, we hope Thailand can move towards a more democratic future and break away from the military vicious cycle.
Ploykamol Suwantawit is a PhD student at the Department of Communication and Media, the University of Liverpool, researching hashtag activism, celebrity politics, and election campaign in Thailand. Before joining the University of Liverpool, Ploykamol was a parliamentary assistant (speechwriter) for Thailand’s opposition party’s leader.