The Next Phase of Thailand's Political Struggle

7 MINS READApr 6, 2016 | 09:30 GMT
Thai soldiers stand guard ahead of the National Reform Council's vote on the draft of a new constitution on Sept. 6, 2015.
Forecast Highlights

  • Thailand's new draft constitution will cement the military's role as the country's ultimate authority and will hinder attempts by exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to power.
  • Despite mounting criticism of its authoritarian ways, the military will face only meek resistance from its support base to its vision of a "managed democracy."
  • Because of Thaksin's enduring popularity, the junta's new rules could renew political unrest following a charter referendum in the second half of the year.

A new phase in Thailand's political standoff has begun. During the week of March 28, the ruling military junta released a long-awaited draft of the country's new constitution, slated for a referendum in August. For more than a decade, centuries-old regional rivalries and political fractures have routinely paralyzed Thailand at a time of rising economic competition and immense regional change. Through it all, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been at the center of the unrest. A telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin's rapid rise to power and excessive corruption destabilized the elite-dominated system of checks and balances under which the country had generally flourished.

But since the country's military assumed power in a May 2014 coup, politics in Thailand have effectively been put on pause. Immediately after deposing the government led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck, the military began to clamp down on dissent and dismantle Thaksin's Red Shirt support base, limiting the group's ability to organize the sort of mass protests that crippled Bangkok in 2009 and 2010. Even so, Thaksin has maintained enough popularity that his Pheu Thai party would almost certainly prevail in an election. Consequently, the ruling generals have been stalling a return to elections for as long as possible — or at least until Thailand's looming royal succession process is settled. For his part, Thaksin has tried to avoid giving the junta pretext to delay elections indefinitely by, for example, urging his supporters not to return to the streets.

As a result, a superficial calm has settled over Thailand. Capitalizing on the lull, the junta has centralized power and attempted to restructure the Thai political system to contain any Thaksin-aligned government that comes to power in the future. At the same time, the largely rural factions Thaksin united in his rise to power have been encouraged to move on without him. The junta's new constitution is central to both efforts.

Writing Thaksin Out

At its core, the new charter is designed to contain powerful populists such as Thaksin by giving the military checks over any elected government. It includes a mechanism for installing an unelected prime minister, which would hamstring large parties in parliament such as Pheu Thai. The charter also calls for a three- to five-year transition period following the next elections (currently scheduled for mid-2017), during which the military would have veto power over elected governments. Perhaps most contentious, under the new charter's terms the military will appoint all members of the Senate, enabling the body to thwart proposals advanced by the elected House of Representatives.

The military is demonstrating that it will not tolerate fresh bids for amnesty or a charter rewrite from Thaksin, who sought such outcomes under his sister's administration. It has also made it clear that Thaksin cannot orchestrate his return simply by waiting for an election. An overriding goal of the new charter is 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. In this way, the charter intentionally diverges from the previous "soft" coup of 2006, in which the military simply invalidated the existing 1997 constitution, without taking further precautions to diminish Thaksin's pervasive political influence.

Anyone's Vote

If the state envisioned in the draft constitution strays from a model democracy, the junta admits as much. For example, the Constitutional Drafting Committee said the text was not meant to empower citizens but to ensure their well-being in a "secure future" free from corruption.

Despite its tight grip on power, the junta is not immune to backlash over its authoritarian ways. Over the past three months, the junta has encountered unusual public resistance to its consolidation of power. Even those political parties and factions that supported the 2014 coup, including former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and other figures from the Democratic Party, have criticized the junta's charter plans. What's more, the junta-appointed Constitutional Drafting Committee successfully pushed back against the military's demands for certain powers.

But the prospect of a military-managed democracy for Thailand has yet to spark even a hint of major protest. Although middle-class urbanites and students have fought military rule in the past, this demographic group also served as the core opposition to Thaksin's political domination in the 2000s. Moreover, strong-arm tactics are generally tolerated in Thailand as long as they are deemed necessary to preserve national unity in the face of overreaching politicians. In the view of the coup supporters, Thaksin constitutes just such a figure.

Still, the likely outcome of the August charter referendum is unclear. The military's rewritten charter after the 2006 coup survived a referendum by suprisingly narrow margins. Today, the country is even more polarized, and Thaksin can expect high turnout from his proportionally superior support base.

Thaksin's Last Stand

If the charter passes, the junta will move toward the next elections with confidence, eager to shed the burdens of governance. Even if the charter fails, the junta has said it will unilaterally impose an earlier, similarly restrictive draft and proceed with elections as promised. Meanwhile, the Red Shirts and Pheu Thai insist that the charter's failure at the polls would also signal the failure of the junta, which should therefore resign and reinstate the 1997 People's Constitution. But in this scenario, the military would not comply.

This is in part because the generals believe that Thaksin's political bloc is beginning to fracture. Rumors of widespread dissatisfaction with Thaksin among the Red Shirt camp are on the rise. Furthermore, in January, Thaksin named Sudarat Keyuraphan — an influential lawmaker and leader of a prominent Pheu Thai faction — as de facto party leader and his choice for future prime minister. In making the nomination, Thaksin deviated from picking family members or weak allies to lead the party by proxy, a habit he has relied on to ensure sustained influence since his 2006 ouster.

As the junta sees it, Pheu Thai leaders looking to move on from Thaksin will lack the fortitude and motivation for a pre-election fight over the charter, especially if it would be seen only as a futile exercise primarily serving Thaksin's ends. Indeed, even the Democrats' criticism of the junta is rooted in a growing belief that Thaksin and his political machine cannot overcome the military's resolve. In a political world without Thaksin, politicians will not want to contend with extreme military oversight. But few Red Shirt factions have openly called for a split from Thaksin. For now, the movement remains his and still exists primarily to provide political muscle.

And so, when political disturbance inevitably returns to Thailand, it will likely be after the August referendum. Because the new constitution would prohibit any future government from making the concessions Thaksin needs to regain power, the referendum could be his last stand. Regardless of whether the charter is approved, Thaksin will have to make his move after the vote, arguing that the people have rejected military intervention or perhaps that the vote was rigged. Pro-Thaksin groups are already advancing the idea that, with two failed charter initiatives to its credit, the military will have failed in its attempt to "save the nation."

On the other hand, should aging King Bhumibol Adulyadej pass away before the transition back to nominal civilian rule is complete, it would further forestall political change. His death would represent an unprecedented historical juncture in Thailand. Moreover, the state-mandated mourning period that would follow, with willing participation from most of the population, would ensure temporary stability in the country, enforced with further draconian measures. But this would just amount to another pause in Thai politics. As long as Thailand's underlying fractures remain unresolved, the power struggles inherent to the country's political system will eventually return to the fore. 

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