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Thailand’s new twist to democracy

Thailand’s election on 14 May produced results few predicted. While Thai politics before the military led government revolved around the battle between the royalist (yellow shirts) and the reformist (red-shirts) led by supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party, the polls saw a new force in Thai politics, the Move Forward party. Led by young activists and headed by Harvard-educated Pita Limjaroenrat, the party promised, in the election campaign, to reexamine Thailand’s long standing institutions that have defined the country’s politics – the monarchy and the armed forces.

The poll results show a highly decided voting public. The election outcome made clear that majority of Thai voters wanted to reform long standing institutions like the army and the monarchy. In the election, the Move Forward party together with Thaksin Shinawatra’s backed Pheu Thai Party won 293 seats in the 500-seats Thai assembly. The heavy casualty of the elections was the Thailand pro-military parties who won only 76 seats.

Early efforts were made by the Move Forward Party to join with other like-minded reformist parties- including Thaksin’s Pheu Thai’s party to form the new government. Between them the parties would have secured 313 seats in the Thai house of representative. The plan hit a roadblock after the coalition did not get the approval of the 250-member strong military appointed senate. Thailand’s constitution allows for the appointment of 250 senators, all appointed by the military. The senate’s disapproval was expected after the Move Forward refused to negotiate the party’s electoral commitment to go ahead to reform Article 112 of the constitution or the lese majeste laws.

The Move Forward-led failed coalition plan saw the Pheu Thai charting its own ambition by negotiating with parties to form the next government, even willing to partner conservative military backed parties. After weeks of political deadlock, events took a surprising turn when in late August, the Pheu Thai’s party teamed up with 11 parties including 2 military-backed parties to form the government. The coalition was given the thumbs up by both house of representative and the senate and Pheu Thai’s Stretha Thakisin, a property magnate, was appointed prime minister on 22 August.  After months of political deadlock, the news rallied the markets with the Thai Baht strengthening after weeks of weak trading.  

While the about-turn in Thai politics ended the political stalemate and horse trading between political parties, it speaks little of Thailand’s political trajectory.  Soon after, the new coalition government was installed Thaksin Shinawatra’s announced that he was prepared to come home and start his prison sentence, after 15 years in exile. Thaksin cited spending time with family as his reason to face the sentence, but it is not hard to conclude that his decision had to do with latest political development in Thai politics. Thaksin arrived in Bangkok on a private jet, offered his respect to the portrait of the Thai King before being whisked away by Thai security. He was then admitted to the luxury wing of a private hospital after complaining of heart problems. Days after his return, Thaksin received a royal pardon that sees his prison sentence reduced from 8 years to just one year. The royal gazette stated that the sentence was reduced on grounds that Thaksin “has done good for the country and people and is loyal to the monarchy.”

What lies ahead for Thailand’s politics? One fact remains is that whoever is in charge needs to work around the country’s institutional qualities. Thailand’s terms of reference remain the military and the monarchy. Any ideas of change would have to deftly negotiate these institutional qualities. In the short run, the road ahead for the newly formed coalition government does not seem to be easy. For one, the outcome of the election saw a dispirited voters. The Pheu Thai’s compromise with conservative parties is taking the shine off the party’s image as one that champion reform.  The public smelled a political deal. Days after Pheu Thai brokered the deal, the party’s supporters expressed their displeasure by gathering outside the party’s headquarters and smearing red paint to the party’s premise and the effigy of Thaksin Shinawatra. Recent poll by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) found that 60 percent of Thais did not agree with the Pheu Thai’s decision to form the government with pro-military parties. It does not help that the Prime Minister, Mr Srettha is a new hand in politics. With Mr Thaksin back in politics after a year, it would be difficult to ignore Thaksin’s presence in the party. Mr Srettha is also not popular within his party that makes negotiating the demands and keeping everyone happy especially in an 11-party coalition more complicated and challenging. For now, let’s hope that this new chapter in Thai politics would not end up with the political uncertainty that, in the last chapter, saw another round of military take-over.

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