Thailand Analysis: NLA votes to further delay general election; marks fourth postponement since 2014 coup, likely attempt to preserve political authority of military government
• On January 25, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) voted overwhelmingly in favor of extending the enforcement of the organic bill on Member of Parliament (MP) elections, effectively delaying the general elections from November 2018 until February 2019 at the earliest.
• The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has stated that it was not involved in the vote and that the NLA acted independently on the issue. The vote marks the fourth time that general elections and the transition to democracy have been postponed since the military seized control from the government in a 2014 coup.
• The NCPO appears to be making a concerted effort to enshrine the authority of the military in the Thai political system, with suspicions that it favors a delay to the general elections in order to consolidate support for a new, pro-junta political party.
• Aware of the continued popularity of the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), founded by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, amendments to the electoral system and favorable policies directed towards new political parties will likely continue to limit an effective resurgence of the opposition.
• Despite the junta’s current hold on power, a failure to hold credible elections is liable to result in the EU’s watering down of fresh political and economic ties with the Thai government as well as enhanced discontent among the public.
• Travel to Bangkok may continue while adhering to standard security precautions regarding the latent risk of crime and militant attacks.
• On January 25, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) voted 196 to 12 in favor of extending the enforcement of the organic bill on Member of Parliament (MP) elections, effectively delaying general elections from November 2018 until February 2019. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha stated on January 26 that the NLA had acted independently on the issue.
• Following the passage of the bill in the NLA, it will be sent to King Maha Vajiralongkorn for royal endorsement, which he has 90 days to provide. Although the King can return the bill to the NLA for amendments, his approval is not required for enactment.
• In opposition to the delay, pro-democracy activists held a demonstration in central Bangkok on January 27, demanding that the political assembly ban be lifted and that a general election be held before the end of the year. Protesters stated that they plan to hold similar demonstrations every Saturday in the capital until an election is held. On January 30, it was reported that seven protest leaders had been charged with sedition for their involvement.
• The NCPO has faced ongoing allegations from the opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP) of efforts to “wipe out political opponents” ahead of elections. Most recently, on January 14, members of the PTP criticized an inquiry into 40 of its former MPs, led by the government-appointed National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) as politically bias.
• The criticism comes amid poll results released on January 6, which indicate that the junta’s popularity rating is currently at its lowest level since coming to power in May 2014. Despite the dip in support, the junta retains an average approval rating, slightly higher than that held by former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra before the 2014 coup.
Assessments & Forecast:
Despite denial of involvement, NCPO likely pushed for delay in order to consolidate political presence
- Although the junta has stated that it had no involvement in the postponement of the elections, given that the military-appointed and maintains considerable influence over the NLA, it is likely that it pressured the legislature to consider the extension. The primary motivation behind the delay is likely that it provides the NCPO with additional time to incorporate a permanent role for the military within the Thai political system before the electorate goes to the polls.
- The process of enshrining the role of the military in the political system began with the passing of a 20-year national strategy in August 2017, which provides the government with legally-binding oversight over elected governments for the next two decades. During a five year “transitional” phase to democracy, any future government must report its progress on a quarterly basis to a military-appointed Senate. The government is reportedly in the process of attempting to enshrine additional Article 44 NCPO orders, initially presented as temporary, into domestic law, indicating that the current sweeping powers held by the military are likely to persist somewhat regardless of the outcome of future elections.
- While the junta has argued that such measures are necessary in order to maintain long-term political stability, it provides the military with considerable power over future governments. Even if a political party were to be democratically elected, the aforementioned changes limit the scope within which they may govern and renders any future government increasingly vulnerable to military interference. FORECAST: In the period leading up to elections, the junta is likely to make an increasing push to enshrine controversial NCPO orders into law, in order to consolidate their long-term political presence.
Junta likely to utilize continued postponement of general election to stifle resurgence of opposition
- The postponement of the elections also provides the NCPO with more opportunity to stifle the resurgence of the main opposition PTP. Although the conviction and self-imposed exile of its leadership have effectively left the PTP without a notable and unifying figurehead, the party still retains a substantial support base throughout the country, particularly among rural voters in the north and northeast. In the 2011 election, the PTP won 424 of 500 available parliamentary seats, and recent polls indicate that they would receive a majority of votes in the upcoming elections. Aware that the decades-long support for the PTP is unlikely to be defeated democratically, the military government appears to have utilized alternative methods of stemming the party’s electoral viability.
- In an effort to limit the PTP’s political clout, the NCPO has been utilizing public institutions such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) in its crackdown. Despite the NACC’s designated role as a politically impartial investigatory body, its board has been appointed by the NCPO and has faced accusations from politicians and activists of a targeted agenda against the opposition. Such criticism intensified in January due to an ongoing anti-corruption inquiry into 40 former PTP MPs, which has the potential to result in their five-year ban from politics, significantly impacting the party’s ability to regroup and field candidates ahead of any polls. With the NACC and the NLA carrying out decisions by proxy, the junta can claim non-involvement in outcomes clearly to its benefit.
- Another way in which the junta has attempted to limit the electoral success of the PTP has been through an amendment to the electoral system, outlined in the 2017 Constitution. The modified proportional system of electing members of the lower house is likely to increase seats held by small and medium-sized parties, but negatively impact the representation of large parties, most notably the PTP. Under this system, coalition governments are increasingly likely, and the PTP’s large support base will not necessarily translate into a role in any such alliance.
Postponement likely attempt to consolidate support for new pro-junta parties; increases potential for PM Prayuth’s continued leadership
- Delay to the vote is likely to add to speculation that the NCPO is attempting to establish new pro-junta political parties. Talk of the junta’s inroads into civilian politics heightened in December 2017, when it was reported that in addition to the inherent advantage provided to small parties by the amended electoral system, the NCPO had issued an order providing new political parties more time to begin organizing politically than existing parties. The order, currently being challenged in Constitutional Court by both the PTP and the Democrat Party, saw accusations levied towards the junta regarding an intention to create several new proxy parties favoring its agenda. Pushing back the general election again is therefore likely an attempt to provide new, pro-junta parties with an extended opportunity to consolidate a public support base.
- The electoral success of such parties would not only help to ensure a continuation of the current government’s political program but could create the conditions for PM Prayuth to be re-appointed as the country’s leader. The Prime Minister hinted to his desire to remain in power on January 16, when he described himself as not a soldier, but “a politician who used to be a soldier”. While PM Prayuth cannot participate in as a candidate in any elections, the amended constitution allows for a so-called outsider to be appointed Prime Minister by a minimum of 250 members of parliament if an existing candidate does not achieve sufficient votes. As reports indicate that PM Prayuth is currently the strongest outsider candidate, the electoral success of pro-junta parties increases the likelihood of his continued political presence.
Although opposition, public protests largely quashed, continued pushing back of vote liable to stoke instability
- The continued avoidance of democratic elections is liable to undermine the remaining legitimacy of the NCPO government and cause enhanced criticism from both local and international observers. The potential breakdown in the recently reinstated political engagement with the EU is likely the most significant consequences of pushing back the elections. On December 11, the EU announced that it would gradually resume political contact “at all levels” with Thailand, as well as resume free trade talks. The move, however, was contingent upon the holding of democratic elections. With Thailand’s economic growth has remained behind the average for Southeast Asian nations since the 2014 coup, a boost to the country’s trade would benefit the government both in terms of Thailand’s international standing, as well as lessening persistent criticism from the public regarding the perceived mismanagement of the economy. FORECAST: While the EU is likely to enhance pressure on the NCPO to lift restrictions on freedom of assembly as opposed to severing ties altogether, failure to demonstrate a commitment to the democratic transition is liable to result in the shelving of vital trade agreements for the foreseeable future.
- Similarly, attempts to extend the junta’s political dominance through undemocratic means is liable to stoke local discontent. A statement issued by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan on January 26 in which he asserted that the NLA acted “without external influence of any kind” was likely an attempt to shirk responsibility for the additional delay and to mitigate public outrage directed at the government over the move. However, the public is unlikely to be convinced by the denial of responsibility, particularly as the results of polls released on January 6 indicate that support for the NCPO is significantly diminishing over time.
- The pro-democracy demonstrations held in Bangkok on January 27 and the organizers’ commitment to repeat such protests weekly until elections are held are indicative of the continued potential for opposition movements to reemerge as the junta refuses to rescind power, albeit on a smaller scale than during the 2014 unrest. The fact that the police did not immediately intervene in the demonstration, despite the ban on political assembly, was likely an effort to avoid the imagery of violent suppression of political dissent in the international press, particularly in the aftermath of controversial election delays. Instead, the decision to later press charges of sedition against seven of the organizers effectively stifles the leadership of emerging protest movements while deterring others from involvement in future demonstrations.
- FORECAST: The charges levied against the pro-democracy movements’ organizers are likely to limit participation in upcoming pro-democracy protests and stem the resurgence of an anti-junta campaign due to fears of legal repercussions. Additional arrests are liable to be conducted in the near term, should critics persist in holding demonstrations in defiance of the political assembly ban.
- Travel to Bangkok may continue while adhering to standard security precautions regarding the latent risk of crime and militant attacks.
- Avoid the immediate vicinity of any protest and political gatherings due to the potential for unrest and violence to be recorded during these events.
- Avoid discussing the current political situation in Thailand in public. Be advised that criticizing the military and the monarchy is illegal and may lead to arrests.