May 20, 2019 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

Thailand Faces a Transition From Junta to Military-Favored Rule

This photo shows protesters opposed to the military junta's rule over Thailand during a demonstration disputing election results.
(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Thailand appears poised for greater policy continuity given that parties linked to the outgoing military junta have a strong chance of forming a government.
  • This bodes well for massive junta-backed infrastructure initiatives, including China’s Belt and Road outlays in the country.
  • However, the political opposition will continue to jockey for control of the lower house, seek to disrupt legislation and may resort to street demonstrations if stifled.

The dust from Thailand's landmark election has largely settled, and the country's military junta, on the verge of handing the reins to popularly elected leaders, has emerged in an even stronger position than early returns suggested. The country's National Assembly will convene May 22, five years to the day when Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered the military to seize power and arrest the members of the civilian Cabinet. Since then, a military junta, with Prayuth serving as prime minister, and its allies in the monarchy have worked diligently not only to effect a royal transition but also to promulgate a constitution that limits civilian rule. With the rewrite, the military leaders are guarding against the potential return to power of forces loyal to the popular exiled politician Thaksin Shinawatra and his family, fearing a return to political chaos and its ripple effects on Thai stability.

With a relatively strong position in the National Assembly and constitutional limits on civilian power, the military's proxies appear to have the numbers needed to appoint a prime minister and form a government. If they manage to make good on their advantage, this means greater policy continuity for Thailand, affecting the country's involvement in China's Belt and Road Initiative and in other projects to build up infrastructure and exports. However, the limited scope of this victory — and the continuing divisions within the country's political scene — mean that the fundamental discord has not abated, leaving open the possibility of disruptive street demonstrations and opposition attempts to obstruct legislation.

The Big Picture
Thailand is a key Southeast Asian economy and manufacturing hub that weathered years of disruptive political tumult. The results of its first election since military leaders supplanted the civilian government in a 2014 coup bode well for policy continuity as the ruling junta steps down. But the legislative divisions laid bare by the results reflect the acrimony that bubbles just under the surface of Thai politics.

A Split Decision

Thailand's March 24 election was essentially a contest pitting military-linked parties against forces loyal to Thaksin. Outside of this core dynamic stood parties such as newcomer Future Forward as well as the establishment elite parties, which had been the key Thaksin foes in the pre-coup days. The question was whether the Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai Party would manage to secure a strong standing, by either capturing enough seats outright or by forming a coalition with other anti-military parties. But with all of the results out, the anti-military forces appear to have failed to reach the threshold needed to seat a government, a feat that would have been a tall order given that the election took place under the auspices of the military-promulgated constitution.

Pheu Thai gained a plurality of 136 seats in the 500-seat lower house, with the other six parties in its nascent Democratic Front coalition gained another 108 seats. The combined total of 244 falls just shy of a lower-house majority. The junta-backed Palang Pracharath party won the second-highest number of seats with 115. After the polls closed, and just before the lower house results were announced, a constitutional court approved a vote-counting system that swept numerous tiny parties into power to the detriment of more popular anti-military parties. With 11 of these parties agreeing to ally with Palang Pracharath, its numbers now stand at at least 126 lawmakers. Taken together with junta-appointed senators, that would give those aiming to sustain the military grip on power a combined parliamentary majority of 376 — just above the threshold needed to form a government.

This chart shows the composition of Thailand's parliament.

The remaining establishment parties — the Democrats, Bhumjaithai and Chartthaipattana — hold a combined 113 seats, fewer than the number needed to tip the balance against the military's coalition. Moreover, Pheu Thai would be hard-pressed to enlist them into such a cause given their acrimonious history. Regardless, these establishment parties are the swing players to watch given that they could either reinforce or complicate the junta's efforts to form a government and implement its agenda.

The Maneuvering Ahead

Much will now depend on maneuvering in the upcoming parliament. If all proceeds as expected, the military-aligned parties would tap Prayuth, but should the monarchy push back against that choice, royal privy councilor Ampon Kittiampon could serve as a compromise pick. Given the thin veneer of legitimacy around the military's win, it may veer in another direction and pick a civilian leader such as Anutin Charnvirakul, head of the Bhumjaithai Party, which controls 51 seats. Further negotiations could even add enough allies to the pro-military bloc to deliver a lower house majority, although this will be a long shot. 

Regardless, the military-royal establishment appears to have just enough strength to check the Thaksin-backed opposition, at least for now. This would assure a degree of policy continuity in the post-junta period, with the military able to cement Thailand's involvement in China's Belt and Road Initiative, continue a broader infrastructure push and renew efforts to boost flagging exports. Had anti-military forces come to prevail in parliament, they likely would have focused on reversing course on the junta's policy direction and trying to effect constitutional changes that would have pushed the balance of power back toward civilian rule and away from the military.

Political acrimony will always lurk just under the surface, particularly as the military works to cement its position in civilian politics with an eye toward future elections.

Until the 2014 coup, Thailand's tumultuous politics resulted in frequent government turnovers that caused massive disruptions, hamstringing government policy continuity and dragging down economic growth. A smoother transition to the post-coup period means that a return to such outright acrimony is less likely. This also bodes well for a $629 million stimulus package under consideration. With a slowdown in economic growth in the first quarter dragging down 2019 growth forecasts, largely due to the U.S.-China trade war and drought conditions, the outgoing junta's finance ministry will have even more incentive to spur growth to smooth the way for a potential military-backed government.

But political acrimony will always lurk just under the surface, particularly as the military works to cement its position in civilian politics with an eye toward future elections. Even as it works to smooth the transition, it will continue to go after potential rivals. Take for example the case of Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who is currently facing charges of sedition and insurrection related to 2015 protests that could see him ousted from parliament and imprisoned. The electoral popularity of his party and its potential to emerge as a long-term challenger to military power will make him and his allies a key target.

The anti-military force, however, is by no means entirely cowed. With the share of seats among parties working to counter the military close to a simple majority, they will work to provide a clear counterpoint to whatever government emerges and may occasionally pull together enough votes on certain issues to score legislative victories. For now, there appears to be no appetite for a return to raucous street protests — particularly given the ease with which the military could crack down. But if the legislative maneuvers do not work, the anti-military forces might once again resort to high-profile pressure tactics.

At the same time, even the military-linked parties will need to maintain a degree of legitimacy, which means banding together with civilian parties as much as possible — ideally forming a majority coalition (however narrow) of its own to stamp its preferred policies with a popular mandate. This may also mean reaching across the aisle wherever possible to convince stalwart anti-military parties of the rewards of cooperation.

Regardless of how the parliamentary coalitions come together, military power brokers will have a strong hand in the incoming government, both through their legislative majority and because of the constitutional limits on civilian power. And while a current of instability is likely to continue to run through Thai politics, the outcome of the election, at least, will make the transition away from direct military rule smoother than initially expected.

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