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Getting out of Thailand's political cul-de-sac

For ruling elites, quest for legitimacy could prove a trap of their own making

Thailand's recent political history has centered on whether the country's rulers, without having a voter mandate, are doing well enough to stay in power.   © Reuters

Thailand has come full circle again. The kingdom's 12-year pattern of a political juggernaut being elected to office and later abusing power before being ousted by his or her opponents still holds. This time, as determined by the country's highest court, the outcome is a five-year jail term for former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on charges of negligence over her government's flawed rice subsidy scheme that ran from Thailand's last poll in July 2011 until the latest military coup in May 2014.

While this cycle of a popular mandate being overturned by judicial and military maneuvers repeats itself, the persistent conundrum for Thailand is whether those who rule without electoral legitimacy will perform well enough to stay in power -- or whether calling the shots from the sidelines will lead to another (and possibly more damaging) round of internal conflict and turmoil.

First, it is instructive to put the Yingluck trial in perspective. Like her eldest brother and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was re-elected by a landslide in 2005 only to be toppled by a putsch the following year, Yingluck led the Pheu Thai party to a resounding win in parliamentary elections and became the country's first female head of government. The Shinawatras' popularity derived from concrete policies that pandered to poorer rungs of society, particularly rural constituencies. When Thaksin had his turn earlier, his platform featured a universal health care that guaranteed treatment for just 30 baht, or about $1 -- and a microcredit scheme that bestowed 1 million baht on each of about 77,000 villages. For Yingluck, Thaksin's inner sanctum on policy contrivance similarly decided on numbers that are easy to remember. Farmers were guaranteed 15,000 baht per ton of rice, undergraduate degree holders 15,000 baht monthly salary, and wage earners 300 baht a day.

These numbers were designed to woo the electorate, and were not based on rationally calculated policy programs with logical and longer-term policy objectives. But whether and how much the rice-pledging led to billions of dollars in fiscal losses -- as claimed in the legal charge leveled against Yingluck -- is a different matter. Thaksin's policy bet through the Yingluck premiership was premised on cornering the world rice market by accumulating Thai rice and paying farmers handsomely right away. If the accumulated rice could be sold on world markets with higher prices, then a handsome profit would accrue. If not, corresponding losses would be incurred. As it turned out, Thailand quickly discovered it was no longer the only major rice exporter. The rice-pledging scheme was a profligate gamble and a policy disaster. Its exact losses can only be valued when all the stored rice is sold with proceeds compared with originally purchased prices.

As for Yingluck herself, having initially jumped bail and left the country before her five-year jail term was announced, her political future is effectively finished, thanks in part to a newly minted law that requires her to appear in person for an appeal. The law also means her conviction no longer carries a statute of limitations. Just like her brother and predecessor, who still faces corruption-related charges, the specter of any jail time will ensure permanent exile. At issue after Yingluck's political expiry is the Pheu Thai party, which is now rudderless.

Party politics

If Thaksin chooses a vigorous fight back, with Yingluck's help, Pheu Thai's leadership is likely to become more hawkish, led by the likes of firebrand Pheu Thai politician Watana Muangsook or former student leader Chaturon Chaisang. A more compromising Thaksin would choose someone like the former deputy leader of his earlier Thai Rak Thai party, Sudarat Keyuraphan. In this respect, she is more acceptable to the junta. On the other hand, Thaksin is unlikely to call it quits in Thai politics having had tens of millions of dollars worth of assets frozen and drawn a criminal conviction -- in absentia -- not to mention his sister's ordeal at the hands of the family's adversaries. While it has been systematically weakened by two military coups and two judicial dissolutions of its forerunners since 2006, Pheu Thai remains a dominant force in a weak field. Without an alternative policy outlook, its rival Democrat Party is committed to the same leadership lineup that has lost all elections to Thaksin's parties. Other parties do not have the scale and track record to outcompete Pheu Thai.

Yet Pheu Thai may be relegated to opposition benches irrespective of its performance in the next poll, expected in the latter half of 2018 at the earliest. Drawn up and approved by junta-appointed bodies, the 2017 constitution vests one third of parliament (250 senators) for junta appointments. The remainder (500 parliamentarians) comes under a mixed-member apportionment where higher constituency seats from 350 are inversely related to party-list scores of 150. So a party that garners 60% of constituencies can only be allocated up to 40% on its party-list. Previously, voters could support one party on both ballots, but now only a constituency choice is allowed. This provision aims to preclude the rise of a mega-party like Thaksin's.

As the post-poll prime minister no longer has to be a member of parliament under the new constitution, the military-appointed senate would need only one quarter of elected representatives to end up with a general at the helm, prospectively the former army commander and incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup, or another military nominee. As other constitutionally mandated agencies, such as the election and anticorruption commissions, have been filled by junta preferences, the elements are converging on a post-election coalition of medium and smaller parties, with or without the Democrats but most likely excluding Pheu Thai, with a pro-military surrogate in charge. Moreover, this prospect is now more internationally palatable following Prayuth's recent reception by President Donald Trump at the White House.

For good measure, the junta has come up with a "20-year national strategy" as a policy straitjacket for future governments, along with a law that ensures its implementation. In the interim, just in case absolute power is needed, Prayuth is equipped with the coup-induced Section 44 of the interim charter (which perversely supersedes the new constitution) to rule by fiat.

Such constitutional circumstances and the resulting electoral setup suggest the military will cast a long shadow over Thai politics for the foreseeable future. As its symbiotic role with the monarchy and bureaucracy in the Thai political order is now insecure after the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej last October, the generals want to take matters into their own hands. But manipulating the constitution and staying in power at all costs are likely to lead to an inevitable showdown with forces from political parties and civil society, which have grown increasingly opposed to the military government. Dissent in Thailand has been suppressed but much of it also has been self-censored, partly owing to the mourning period prior the late King's cremation, scheduled for Oct. 26.

What many Thais are waiting to see is how the new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, intends to reign. Since democratic institutions are weak and divided, there is no stopping the military so far. The relationship between the new king and the junta is thus critical to understanding how Thailand's new politics will unfold.

Being politically unsettled will be the new norm until the country can reach a power arrangement acceptable to its elites among themselves and between elites and the masses. This means elections cannot be delayed indefinitely -- but more important will be whether a compromise through a civil-military power-sharing can emerge thereafter, underpinned by reforms of the traditional institutions in favor of strengthening democratic institutions. Such is Thailand's most viable and achievable political horizon in the longer term. Anything short of this will keep Thailand stuck in a cul-de-sac, going into yet another circle to nowhere.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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