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Thai Democracy Faces Continuing Hurdles in the Wake of Elections
By Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1), Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Gregory Poling (@GregPoling), Fellow, and Noelan Arbis, Researcher, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS
Thailand held national elections on February 2 that besieged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government hoped would quell a months-long political crisis. The polls proceeded more peacefully than had been expected, and the higher-than-predicted turnout undercut the message of government opponents who claim to represent the will of the people. But the elections did not break the current political deadlock, which is set to continue for at least several months—months in which Thailand cannot fulfill its role as a regional leader and during which the United States and the international community should sharpen their messaging toward Bangkok.
Government opponents, led by former senior Democrat Party politician Suthep Thaugsuban and supported by many middle- and upper-class residents of Bangkok and southern Thailand, forced the cancellation of voting at 11 percent of polling places, mainly in the south and the capital. A week earlier they had prevented hundreds of thousands of people from voting early. According to the Election Commission, voter turnout in the 68 (out of 75) provinces where at least some polling places opened was about 45 percent, defying opposition expectations. But the commission has said it will hold off releasing any results until early voters are given another chance to cast their ballots on February 23.
The Election Commission will need to organize by-elections in all those constituencies that were unable to vote, including the 28 in which demonstrators blocked candidate registration in December. By-elections will also be needed for constituencies in which unopposed candidates received the support of less than 20 percent of eligible voters or fewer than the number of “no” votes cast.
According to Thailand’s constitution, a new parliament cannot be formed until 95 percent of seats are filled. The elections clearly fell short of that number, although how short remains unclear. But the Election Commission has said that organizing all the necessary by-elections could take anywhere from three to six months. That means the country will be stuck with a caretaker government until at least mid-2014, assuming it can cling to power that long. Such a government cannot make crucial budget decisions, cannot pass important legislation, and cannot reach international agreements. In other words, it cannot lead, either at home or abroad.
The Yingluck government still balances on a knife-edge, with the opposition challenging the election results in court and continuing to mount street protests. Many observers in Bangkok expect the political stalemate will be resolved by some kind of an “administrative coup” in the weeks ahead.
Few expect a military coup like the one launched against Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, in 2006. The generals appear loathe to overthrow yet another popularly elected government and face the domestic and international opprobrium that would follow. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and other top generals publicly cast ballots in the elections, sending a message that even if they are not overly fond of the government, they will respect the system. General Prayuth on February 4 admitted that the elections had turned out better than expected and said the military would not be pushed by outside groups into launching a coup.
That leaves Thailand’s courts and other appointed government bodies as the key players to watch in the days ahead. Government opponents have petitioned the Constitutional Court to nullify the election results and disband Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, arguing that the polls were not free and fair because they were held under a state of emergency. Many legal experts in Thailand have dismissed that argument, but the courts have consistently proved unfriendly to the current government and ordered the dissolution of the last two pro-Thaksin ruling parties.
A likely scenario is that Yingluck and most of the Pheu Thai leadership could be ousted by the National Anti-Corruption Commission. On January 7 the commission charged 308 members of the parliament’s lower house, most of whom are members of Pheu Thai, with illegally seeking to pass a constitutional amendment to make the country’s Senate fully elected. Then on January 28 it launched an investigation of Yingluck’s role in a costly government rice-pledging scheme after bringing formal charges against two of her cabinet members. These cases could effectively nullify the February 2 elections by declaring the vast majority of Pheu Thai lawmakers ineligible for office for five years.
The only constitutional recourse then would be to organize yet another set of elections, which would have to be held amid even greater chaos. This would likely mean that the interim government would be replaced by some kind of appointed council made up of prominent Thais or technocrats with the backing of the military, not unlike what the opposition has been calling for. This council would need to figure out what to do about revising the constitution and eventually holding fresh elections.
Thailand’s political crisis will be solved by Thais, and international actors have limited leverage. But that does not mean that outsiders, the United States in particular, have none at all. Thailand has been a U.S. treaty ally for a half century and a friend for over 180 years. Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, should reiterate to Thailand’s political elites that, as a friend, the United States stands for democracy and hopes that the country will soon find its way back to a democratic political path.
In recent weeks, the U.S. ambassador and the State Department have urged Thais to resolve the current impasse at the ballot box. Those messages prompted the government’s opponents to accuse Washington of siding with the ruling party and threaten to force their way into the U.S. Embassy. Still, the statements reminded the military and others that the international community would oppose any extra-constitutional change in government.
While the annual Cobra Gold military exercises will go ahead in Thailand later in February, the United States should also remind Bangkok that the unending political bickering has delayed some high-level military-to-military engagement as well as civilian efforts to expand regional cooperation in neighboring countries like Myanmar and in joint regional health projects.
It might also be useful to remind Thailand that its neighbors worry about the country being missing in action. The Thai foreign minister could not attend a recent ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Myanmar, and Southeast Asian officials are starting to wonder if Thailand will be able to play its key role as the ASEAN interlocutor with China in the months ahead.
U.S. messaging will play only a minor, if any, role in helping to persuade Thailand’s political and military elites to preserve their country’s democratic system. In the end, the nearly decade-long cycle of rival factions seeking to oust sitting governments can be resolved only if Thailand’s various political stakeholders recognize that politics cannot be a zero-sum game. This is particularly critical given that highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a frequent arbiter in previous crises, is 86 and ailing.
A new elite arrangement is needed, but it must be one that recognizes Pheu Thai’s, or its next incarnation’s, electoral mandate, though not necessarily with Yingluck as prime minister. The Democrats must accept that no amount of constitutional tinkering will change the fact that their only sustainable path to power in today’s Thailand is by competing for votes nationwide, as dozens of third parties did in the recent elections. And Pheu Thai politicians must learn that an electoral majority is not a cudgel, because leaving opponents no recourse in the parliament will only drive them into the streets.
Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog
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