In 2019 democracy continues to elude Thailand. The country’s 2014 putsch overthrew an even more democratic system which, among other things permitted a half-elected Senate and elections at the local level. The coup produced five years of authoritarian military control.
A general election in March and cabinet formation in July gave the country the appearance of democracy. But Thai democracy in 2019 is hollow. The 2014-2019 military junta appointed all Senators, the heads of the Election Commission and other state monitoring agencies. This Senate, which the junta-backed 2017 constitution had empowered to vote (along with Lower House MPs) for prime ministers, was crucial in selecting junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha as the prime minister. Also, when, after the March election, a majority for the anti-junta coalition in the Lower House had been projected, the Election Commissioners suddenly changed the electoral formula, giving the pro-junta coalition a Lower House majority. Moreover, the junta-created Palang Pracharat party benefited from the military’s luring of politicians to join it as well as clandestine vote canvassing by the army’s Internal Security Operations Command. Furthermore, up until the first cabinet was established in July under Prayuth, he simultaneously served as junta leader.
Since the establishment of Prayuth’s coalition government, the quality of democracy in Thailand has continued to be deficient. Military officers reportedly instruct coalition MPs and Senators alike how to vote. Thailand’s Courts are presided over by judges who obtained their positions under the junta. On political issues, these judges have delivered verdicts almost entirely beneficial to the junta. Meanwhile a junta-created Twenty-Year Strategic Plan covering 2018-2037 requires all elected governments to adhere to benchmarks which can be interpreted as including higher military spending and other security priorities. If the committee overseeing the strategy perceives that an elected government is not abiding by the plan, a case can be forwarded to the National Anti-Corruption Commission and eventually to the Constitutional Court which could force the government from office if the court ruled that the government had violated the plan.
Outside of Prayuth’s government, the military retains overwhelming power. Current Army Commander Gen. Apirat Kongompong has made dire warnings several times against any potential protests or opposition in the Lower House, implicitly threatening to use military action to preserve arch-royalist order. What is also interesting is that Prayuth and Apirat are from different army factions: any action by Apirat could turn into a coup d'etat against Prayuth. Apirat’s faction--Wongthewan (Divine Progeny) is however favored by the monarch.
Speaking of the monarch, he remains above politics and no one is supposed to discuss his activities, except in high esteem. There is widespread fear across Thailand about the vaguely worded but harshly enforced Lèse-majesté law (or Article 112) of Thailand’s Criminal Code which punishes those ruled to have insulted the monarch. The law can land anyone in a Thai prison for 15 years for each conviction under 112.
In fact the monarchy is at the apex of the pyramid of power in Thailand. Despite formal state institutions such as the cabinet, parliament and armed forces, the monarchy stands above them all, exerting both formal and informal power as a sort of “parallel state.” The vital linchpin of this parallel state is the monarchy’s dominant connection with military. Thus although elections now take place in Thailand, the country is lorded over by an asymmetrical relationship between monarchy and military with the military as junior partner. The monarch relies on the military to guard its dominance over Thailand while the military relies on monarchy to legitimize its powerful role across society. Since 2016, there appear to be moves to try to further bolster royal power and turn Thailand into an absolute monarchy – something the country has not witnessed since the overthrow of monarchical absolutism in 1932.
Despite the coalition’s dominance by former junta leaders as well as the preeminence of monarchy and military, some democratic political space exists in the Lower House of Parliament. Opposition parties Pheu Thai and Future Forward can together pressure the government. They ensured that the budget bill passed its First Reading by only one vote. But a powerful opposition could be temporary: the government is attempting to lure MPs away from both parties and there is the possibility that in future Future Forward could be dissolved by the judiciary.
Ultimately, Thailand’s current political situation is stagnant, controlled by the monarchy and military, the same forces which have dominated it since time immemorial. There is hope that eventually a new generation of political leadership – perhaps in Future Forward – might move Thailand toward political progress. Until then Thai democracy remains at most highly-frail and at worst a cruel façade.