March 20, 2014. The Royal Thai Army had just declared martial law for the purposes of restoring peace. Soldiers were placed at various areas and main roads, seizing all television stations in Bangkok. Two days later, head of the army General Prayuth Chan-o-cha held talks between the caretaker government and rival protesters. After a long deadlock, General Prayuth ultimately told all present at the meeting: “Sorry, I must seize power.” At that moment, a coup d’etat was launched. Thailand was under the rule of a military junta.
The context behind this coup is essential towards understanding why many consider the Thai election in March 24, 2019 to be one of its most important in the history of the country. After all, it was the first election in eight years. Aside from a possible return to democratic rule, a surge of young Thais were eager to submit their ballot for the first time in their lives. Nevertheless, the larger story of the election is one marred with controversy, conflict, and confusion. As such, understanding the context surrounding the election may help clear up the true implications it has on Thai politics and democracy.
2014 was not the first coup in Thai history, nor was it the second. Since 1912, Thailand had gone through at least 20 coup attempts, 12 of which were successful. The ability and capacity of the military to intervene in Thai politics is well-documented to the point of being unremarkable. The success of a coup also hinges on its rationale, which it often receives from intervening in an environment of political instability. The regularity of such coups is perhaps a testament to the level of influence that the military has on the country.
The lead up to the coup could only be explained by understanding one man: Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was the country’s Prime Minister in 2001, as well as one of its richest men. His party, the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) had just won the elections through a platform based on universal access to healthcare and policies that would benefit the rural farmers, turning them into a base of support. However, his policies and rhetoric were also seen as “populist”, and he was accused of corruption and selling national assets to foreign entities. With protests from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), also known as the “Yellow Shirts”, it all culminated in the 2006 coup that ousted him from power.
Despite Thaksin’s “self-imposed” exile and conviction in absentia, his support was still strong. A rival protest group against the “Yellow Shirts” called the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or the “Red Shirts” continued to support Thaksin against the government under the rival Democrat Party. A new “Thaksinite” party called “Pheu Thai” was also formed, led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck. Pheu Thai would go on to win the 2011 general election, but also prompted anti-Thaksin protests led by former Democrat Party secretary general Suthep Thaugsuban.
The Pheu Thai party would face many crises and controversies, such as the 2011 Thai floods, the failed rice-pledging scheme, and the Amnesty Bill, which some fear would pardon and allow for the return of Thaksin. Massive protests led to further chaos with demonstrations, disruption of voting, and sporadic cases of violence, leading to at least 28 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The Constitutional Court would end up removing Yingluck and other ministers from office, though many criticized that this move was politically motivated. Amid this disruptive crisis, the chaotic environment would be followed by military intervention and martial law.
The Military Junta Regime (2014-2019)
After the coup, the government would be dissolved and the existing constitution repealed. In its place was the establishment of the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) and the introduction of the 2014 interim constitution, which would remain in force until 2017. The constitution was controversial as it had been approved without public consultation, as well as absolving all past and future actions by the military concerned with the coup. Most importantly, it included Section 44, which empowered the NCPO leader to issue any order “for the sake of the nation”, all of which were deemed “lawful, constitutional and final”.
Prayuth would begin his “Return Happiness to the People” campaign, promising the resumption of Thai democracy. Elections had previously been set to take place on July 20 until the instigation of the coup, so the NCPO promised to hold general elections after making reforms and drafting a new constitution. However, these elections were frequently set on arbitrary dates or delayed. Elections were promised as early as the end of 2015, but would be delayed at least five times for various reasons, including the referendum for the draft constitution, completion of reforms, new election laws and delayed royal decrees.
The regime also saw the referendum of a new constitution on August 7, 2016. It proposed that the 250-member Senate would become a fully appointed chamber rather than partially elected like previously, at least for the first five years. With most members approved by the NCPO, they would have veto power on constitutional amendments and would be able to vote for the Prime Minister in combination with the House of Representatives. The referendum also asked whether non-members of the parliament would be allowed to become Prime Minister if there were a deadlock. While people could vote freely, they were banned from criticizing the draft, monitoring the referendum or expressing intention to vote against the draft constitution. These controversies led to accusations of the military attempting to retain its position after the end of the transition. The referendum would pass at 61% with a 59% turnout.
With the passing of a new constitution, numerous delays and the ascension a new king, the five year long regime would finally set the date of the election on March 24, 2019. As such, it is now crucial to understand the changes behind the electoral laws, the main contenders in this new election, and the controversies that have beset the election prior to the date of reckoning.
This is Part One of a three part series on the Thai 2019 Election. Part Two will discuss the process of the election itself.
This article was released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.