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Turbulent Thailand

Lack of communication caused Thai election confusion

Coronation announcement from palace caught military government off guard

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha voting in Thailand's constitutional referendum on Aug. 7, 2016. The election commission has finally announced a general election on Mar. 24.

BANGKOK -- With formal approval from the palace, Thailand finally has a date for its much postponed general election, calming some of the political confusion that has gripped the country since the New Year.

Following a royal decree announcing the general election, the election commission was able to announce on Wednesday that the general election will be held on Mar. 24, a month later than previously expected. 

The muddle over dates was caused by a communication gap between the palace and the military government, according to political insiders and military intelligence sources.

The disconnect between the palace and the cabinet became apparent with an unexpected announcement on Jan. 1 that King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun had chosen May 4-6 as the days for his elaborate coronation ceremony. 

The news caught the government off guard, political and military sources told the Nikkei Asian Review. There was no hint of the impending royal announcement when the 66-year-old king delivered his traditional New Year's speech on national television on Dec. 31. 

The generals scrambled to fall in with the sudden demands of the arcane royal ceremony last staged in 1950. Dictated by celestial laws and astrology, it evidently takes precedence over the already constrained national political life. The regime had planned to announce the election date on Jan. 2, according to its own political roadmap.

"They ended-up sending mixed messages about the promised elections, which sowed confusion," a Western diplomat told Nikkei. "The regime was clearly in a state of flux and there were many rumors."

The military's predicament was made more embarrassing by the confident tone it had struck in December to calm public and international uncertainties about the polls, which had been postponed many times since a coup in May 2014 unseated a caretaker elected government.

Legal heavyweights and election commissioners had been assuring the diplomatic community that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was sticking to his promise to restore democracy with an election decree due early in the New Year.

The communication gulf between the palace and the military government first manifested itself with the death of the much revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct. 13, 2016 after a 70-year reign.

The late king had always worked through trusted functionaries who regularly conferred with prime ministers and other senior government officials. The new king has been more distant in asserting his authority, and has a small, tightly-knit group of advisers. He also prefers to spend most of his days living in a lakeside villa in Munich, Germany, which provides less time for audiences and other formal duties. "That has left the prime minister to read the smoke signals," a military intelligence officer told Nikkei. 

Seasoned observes say this month's turn of events has lifted the veil on the true pecking order in Thailand's semi-feudal society.

Prayuth has been caught flatfooted on a number of occasions. The first was on the night of King Bhumibol's death. In a departure from the expected accession process, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn postponed the formal succession ceremony. He said time was needed for national mourning.

In early 2017, the new king requested changes to the country's 20th constitution. It was still awaiting his signature -- the royal assent -- after being approved in 2016 in a national referendum. It did not receive the royal assent until April after a number of changes had been made. 

The king has also taken more of a hand in running the country's powerful military, controlling the multibillion dollar royal assets previously held and administered by the Crown Property Bureau, and reclaiming large parcels of land around Dusit Palace, a historic district housing many royal structures. The Dusit Zoo is being relocated out of town, and the 44-year-old parliament building had its final sitting in December. 

These changes are known about but receive relatively little publicity. The military's critics, on the other hand, have been publicly vocal over the recent political confusion. As the possibility of another election delay loomed, some openly accused the generals of using the palace announcement to prolong their time in power. 

A military insider told the Nikkei that this was "unfair" criticism. "They are Thais and they should know how Thailand works," he said. 

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