Aug 6, 2016 | 15:26 GMT

6 mins read

Disciplining Democracy in Thailand

Disciplining Democracy in Thailand

The Thai military has staged 12 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. On Aug. 7, the current military junta, which took power in 2014, will ask Thai voters to approve a contentious new constitution. The government says the new charter will eliminate the need for military coups in the future. The draft charter includes a host of sweeping economic, judicial and political reforms. But its success in the referendum will hinge on the public's acceptance of its core aim: entrenching the military as Thailand's ultimate arbiter of power and the solution to the cyclical, often violent political unrest that has crippled the country for the past decade.

If the referendum passes, Thailand will move forward peacefully to elections, currently scheduled for mid-2017, and an era of weak, unstable civilian governments will follow. If the charter is rejected — a probable outcome, since Thailand's two strongest political parties oppose the draft — the junta will have laid the groundwork for a return of political unrest, presaging the end of more than two years of superficial, military-enforced calm.

At its core, the new charter is designed to contain powerful populists such as former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deemed a threat to establishment interests and deposed in a 2006 military coup. Despite living in self-imposed exile, the telecommunications tycoon has remained central to Thailand's political instability; a 2014 coup ousted a government led by his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The charter includes a mechanism for installing an unelected prime minister and strengthens the judiciary's ability to intervene in times of unrest. In addition, it would make it easier for independent candidates to run in elections, limit ruling parties' ability to dole out patronage and prescribe a three- to five-year "transition period" after the next elections, during which the military would have veto power over elected governments. Perhaps the most contentious of the new charter's terms, though, is that the Senate would be fully appointed, enabling the body to thwart proposals advanced by the legislature's elected lower house.

All of these elements are intended to weaken ruling coalitions and make them more susceptible to manipulation by establishment powers, thereby preventing large parties such as Thaksin's Pheu Thai from dominating the legislature. By empowering unelected technocrats, the junta hopes to stabilize the policymaking environment, facilitating long-term economic reforms that will not be vulnerable to changes in government. And by giving itself and the judiciary stronger checks on the type of government overreach that has spawned mass protests in the past, the military believes drastic direct intervention — in other words, coups — will no longer be necessary.

If Voters Approve

If the charter passes, the transition back to civilian rule will likely be smooth. Anti-Thaksin politicians who oppose the draft document will participate in the new system anyway, quietly grateful for the charter's promise to crack Thaksin's dominance. Thaksin, too, will tacitly accept the result. Though he opposes the charter — and the constraints it would impose on his party going forward — an elected government under his implicit control would offer his best chance to remake the political landscape in his favor.

But whether the charter will succeed in stabilizing Thailand over the long term is far from certain. At a minimum, the new constitution would give way to years of constant agitation by political parties trying to regain power from the military, along with constitutional overhauls. Nonetheless, the charter is a forceful signal that the military will not tolerate fresh bids for amnesty or charter rewrites from Thaksin, who tried those tactics under his sister's administration.

If Voters Reject

If the charter is voted down, Thailand will face a new phase of uncertainty — and the highest risk of political instability since the 2014 coup. The military would start the charter-drafting process, which would take months, delaying elections. The new charter, moreover, would also require a referendum and face a similar political environment.

Thaksin's Pheu Thai and his Red Shirt supporters will insist that the charter's failure at the polls would signal the failure of the junta, which should therefore resign and reinstate an earlier charter. At the very least, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the 2014 coup leader and current prime minister, would face mounting pressure to step down. But the charter's failure at the polls would not fundamentally change the junta's imperatives or course. And if Prayuth resigned, other military factions or personalities would be reluctant to take over and inherit the problems of a failing military junta. Other senior generals behind the coup — many of whom are more powerful than the prime minister — are happy to wield their power in the background.

This puts Thaksin in a corner. Since the 2014 coup, he has tried to avoid giving the junta pretext to delay elections indefinitely, for example by urging his supporters to return to the streets. But this strategy has tested the patience of the Red Shirts, many of whom have been clamoring to challenge the junta's authoritarianism through protests and view Thaksin's aims as increasingly self-serving and detrimental to their cause. Meanwhile, by suppressing dissent ahead of the referendum, the junta is only deepening public frustration.

The junta has also been working to convince Pheu Thai politicians to sever ties with Thaksin and allow his network, maintained in large part by business and patronage connections, to unravel back to its constituent parts. One element of Thaksin's rise and sustained success has been his ability to freeze out fellow opposition politicians who have tried to challenge his supremacy. But now that the generals believe Thaksin's political bloc is beginning to fracture, possible alternative political groupings are beginning to take shape.

Since the return to elections appears more and more unlikely, and since other opposition leaders see a route forward without him, it is unclear how long Thaksin will be able to keep biding his time. To contain him, the junta will use legal threats against his family members, and will continue to crack down on any attempts by his supporters to mobilize. But to keep himself at the core of the opposition movement, Thaksin will need to act. Thailand's dry season from December to May, when rural farmers are more willing to leave their fields, is the most likely time for a revival of mass protests. Other factors, such as the feud between prominent Buddhist sects, will complicate any public unrest.

The Monarchy Wild Card

The major wild card in either scenario remains the looming death of Thailand's ailing king and the world's longest-reigning monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Though the king is seen as a benevolent and stabilizing force in Thailand, his most likely successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is deeply unpopular and faces opposition from many powerful stakeholders in Bangkok. Over the past 10 years, succession uncertainty has fueled violent protests in the streets of the capital.

The death of the king, who has spent the better part of the past decade hospitalized, has seemed imminent for years. But whereas the king made periodic appearances in the past, he has not been seen in public since mid-2015. He is believed to be suffering from Parkinson's disease, and according to palace statements, he has received emergency treatment for a litany of ailments in recent months. Though details about the king's health are tightly guarded — and palace intrigue breeds unfounded speculation — reports have been swirling that palace-linked businesses are preparing for an impending succession (or possibly an abdication).

The king's death or abdication in the next year, should it occur, could stabilize Thailand in the near term. The country would enter a lengthy period of state-mandated mourning, stopping the junta's transition back to civilian rule in its tracks (whatever the outcome of the Aug. 7 referendum), suspending the constitutional drafting process and delaying elections indefinitely. Any plans for mass protests likewise would be shelved.

Moreover, the power struggle over succession appears to have been settled. The crown prince is expected to take over, and a strengthened military and judiciary will make up for the weakened monarchy. Still, this calm, too, would be superficial and temporary. Royal succession is unprecedented in modern Thailand, and its long-term implications are unpredictable, as are the lasting effects of weak, unstable civilian governments. What's more, Thailand's underlying fractures will remain unresolved.

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