Monday, 24 July 2023 06:42

Thailand’s democracy could still move forward — even without Pita

Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Thailand’s Move Forward party, greets supporters during a rally at Jomtien Beach in Pattaya, Thailand, on July 22, 2023.

Hopes for a progressive, democratic Thailand may be dashed after Pita Limjaroenrat and his Move Forward party were dealt a major blow Wednesday when the country’s parliament barred Pita from standing a second time in elections for Prime Minister.

The National Assembly also ousted Pita late Wednesday on recommendation of the Constitutional Court as it decides on the validity of his May candidacy in Thailand’s general elections. Pita had managed to build a multiparty parliamentary coalition but failed to capture the necessary votes in an initial contest on July 13, though his party emerged as clear winners in Thailand’s general elections in May. Despite his coalition’s popularity — indicative particularly of young Thais’ frustration with a stalling economy and massive inequality — their ideas for a more open society threaten Thailand’s entrenched monarchy and military leadership.

Now, a rare opportunity for major reform is at risk; though Thai people have demonstrated their support for Move Forward and Pita after their recent setbacks, attending rallies and organizing protests, the deeply entrenched power of the monarchy and the military may prove too overwhelming for progressive civilian governance to break through.

Thailand has a history of political turmoil, resulting in several military coups, including the most recent in 2014, which deposed democratically elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The present Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha took power in 2014 and is a former army general, as well as the nation’s defense minister. Though Thailand has vacillated between a parliamentary democracy and military autocracy throughout the decades, it is technically a constitutional monarchy.

The monarchy is in one sense a treasured part of Thailand’s national character, part of a centuries-long tradition. But under the present king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thailand’s government has experienced further democratic backsliding even as Thai people demand the opposite. Under Vajiralongkorn, the military and the monarchy make a powerful and often threatening combination; according to Human Rights Watch, the government arrested activists, suppressed pro-democracy protests, and instituted a nationwide state of emergency after massive and wide-ranging pro-democracy protests in 2020 and 2021. That protest movement was largely born out of increasing government restrictions and demands to reform the monarchy.

For both Thais and outside observers, Pita’s campaign and his coalition’s win in May presented a real possibility for change and growth in southeast Asia’s second largest economy. Now, given the government’s multivalent efforts to suppress the Move Forward coalition, an opportunity for real change is starting to look like a repeat of history — a seemingly ineluctable cycle of hope, unrest, and crackdowns edging further toward autocracy.

“There’s a pattern here of establishment pushback against any progressive movement in Thai politics,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University told the New York Times. “And the pushback comes in different shapes and forms.”

Thailand’s constitutional monarchy is heavy on the monarchy

Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, when a military coup abolished the absolute monarchy under King Prajadhipok. Despite that history, the Thai military establishment enjoys a close relationship with the monarchy — and they often work in concert to maintain a conservative and even autocratic government despite Thailand’s nominal embrace of democracy.

Prayuth and Vajiralongkorn have proven a formidable pair; during the 2020 and 2021 pro-democracy protests and calls to reform the monarchy, Prayuth’s government re-instituted punishment for lèse-majesté, or criticizing the monarchy. That policy, coupled with Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, enabled the government to detain and harshly punish thousands of pro-democracy protesters, according to Human Rights Watch.

Under Prayuth, the military government has also consolidated power and made it even more difficult for ordinary Thai citizens to participate in government and actually have a choice regarding the future of their government, as Vox’s Li Zhou explained in May:

The military has long had a hold on Thai politics, a grip only strengthened by military coups in 2006 and 2014. That latter coup was led by current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who ushered in a new constitution that gave the military unprecedented power over government. One of those post-coup reforms threatens Move Forward’s coalition: 376 members of parliament are needed to elect a new prime minister, and the 250-person Senate was appointed by the military.

The military and monarchy hold significant sway over the political elite, including those who make up the Senate. That’s less pronounced in the democratically elected lower chamber, the House of Representatives, Brian Harding, senior expert on Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands at the US Institute of Peace, told Vox in an interview. “If that were the only chamber, that in many ways reflects the will of the people,” he said.

But the Senate has been “in lock step” with the government and the monarchy, Anthony Nelson, vice president in the East Asia and Pacific practice at Albright Stonebridge Group, told Vox.

“The constitution is basically functioning as intended; it’s protecting the monarchy, it’s allowing the conservative, establishment Thai parties to have a major, major veto over what happens.”

Move Forward could still be pivotal to Thailand’s future

The democratic movement in Thailand is about much more than Pita, although he has emerged as its charismatic face. His leadership in Move Forward is actually somewhat of an outgrowth of the pro-democracy protests, youth movements, and efforts on the part of Thai civil society.

What is perhaps most salient about Pita is that he reflects the types of people who are drawn to Move Forward — young, well-educated, and progressive, people who ordinarily might be drawn to the traditional political elite, Nelson told Vox. That’s important for two reasons: It’s a departure from the country’s well-worn populist-elected-to-military-coup pipeline; and it’s an indicator that the newer generation is less socially stratified and more interested in building a forward-looking Thailand.

Economically speaking, Thailand’s government is highly conservative; the country is a regional powerhouse but has never really broken out of its middle income status, and there has been relatively little encouragement for domestic innovation.

Thailand’s economy is highly globalized; it is a friendly place for foreign investment, has a robust tourism industry, and is a part of the complex globalized supply chain. But there is a sense among Thai people, Nelson explained, that the fruits of the economy are largely concentrated at the very top.

That’s not unfounded; in 2018 Thailand’s Crown Property Bureau transferred about $40 billion in assets, including land titles and stakes in domestic corporations, over to Vajiralongkorn to be “administered and managed at His Majesty’s discretion,” as the Financial Times reported in 2020. Thais protested the move, calling for more government transparency and reforming the monarchy, in some ways setting off the current pro-democracy movement.

Thailand also lacks a robust social safety net, though the government did implement some social protection policies during the Covid-19 pandemic, including cash payouts for workers in the informal sector and relaxed loan repayments.

In addition to major political reforms like amending the lèse-majesté law and demanding more scrutiny of the defense apparatus, Move Forward offered a striking economic shift. The party proposed policies to build Thailand’s social safety net and raise wages “by raising taxes on corporations and on the wealthy, many of whom currently pay almost nothing in personal income tax,” Scott Christensen, an independent analyst, wrote in May for the Brookings Institution.

Thailand has “found itself in a middle-income rut,” Nelson said, due to vested economic interests and monopolies in several industries including telecoms and alcohol sales. Move Forward had vowed to tackle those monopolies to foment innovation and competition — a position Thitinan told Bloomberg would amount to “a complete transformation of the Thai economy.”

At this point there is almost no possibility that Pita will be Thailand’s next leader; the country’s Constitutional Court is hearing a case alleging that he was unqualified to run in May’s election because he owns shares in a media company, and the National Assembly has voted to prevent him from standing in the PM contest a second time.

However, Prayuth retired from politics July 11 following his party’s poor showing in the polls. Though he did not give a specific reason for his resignation, there is, potentially, at least some understanding that his government is deeply unpopular, as well as hope for a peaceful transition of power.

Furthermore, Pheu Thai, Move Forward’s populist coalition partner, is set to field a candidate for a July 27 election. Though Pheu Thai is more conservative and will likely have to work with populist military-backed parties in parliament, it could actually push the National Assembly in a more progressive direction, Nelson said. And if Pheu Thai wins the premiership, that would represent a significant shift from Thailand’s current politics.

“It was not all that long ago that there was a military coup to break Pheu Thai’s influence,” he said, referring to the 2007 coup that removed Thaksin Shinawatra, the party’s founder, from power. “So if what ends up happening from this is that they come back into power anyway — who knows to what degree they’ll be able to exercise it — but they’ll certainly be able to do something.”