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Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Thailand needs to escape its political cul-de-sac

The ruling elites' quest for legitimacy may be 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, 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 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. The Shinawatras' popularity derived from concrete policies that pandered to the poor, particularly rural constituencies. Thaksin's platform featured 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. Yingluck similarly chose easy-to-remember numbers: Farmers were guaranteed 15,000 baht per ton of rice, undergraduate degree holders a 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, longer-term objectives.

The rice-pledging scheme in particular was a profligate gamble and a policy disaster. The legal charge leveled against Yingluck claims it resulted in billions of dollars in fiscal losses. The exact figure can only be calculated once all the stored rice is sold and the proceeds compared with the original purchase prices.

As for Yingluck herself, having 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. Like her brother, who still faces corruption-related charges, the specter of any jail time will ensure she remains in permanent exile. At issue after Yingluck's political expiry is the Pheu Thai party, which is now rudderless.

PARTY POLITICS If Thaksin chooses to fight back vigorously, the party'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, who is more acceptable to the junta. Thaksin is unlikely to call it quits in Thai politics considering that he has had tens of millions of dollars worth of assets frozen and was handed a criminal conviction in absentia, not to mention his sister's ordeal. 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.

Supporters of ousted former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra wait for her at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, August 25, 2017.   © Reuters

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 reserves 250, or one-third, of parliament's 750 seats for junta appointees. The election to fill the remaining 500 seats will be held under a so-called mixed-member apportionment system aimed at precluding the rise of a megaparty like Thaksin's.

Additionally, as the post-poll prime minister no longer has to be a member of parliament under the new constitution, the military-appointed bloc would need the approval of only one-quarter of elected representatives to place a general at the helm, possibly incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army commander who led the 2014 coup. As other constitutionally mandated agencies, such as the election and anti-corruption commissions, have been filled by junta preferences, the elements are converging for 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.

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 to ensure its implementation.

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 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 a 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 has also 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 among its elites and between the elites and the masses. This means elections cannot be delayed indefinitely -- but more important will be whether a compromise through 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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