The Military Junta as a Political Party

Then-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha casts a ballot in the 2011 general election.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha denied his visit to Buriram province this week was a political move to woo voters and lure local politicians for the promised general elections where he is expected to make a bid to return as prime minister.

The thing is, Prayuth, who is also the junta leader, will keep up the denials as he tours Thailand trading pork for local political support.

That doesn’t stop people like myself from thinking of the junta, and the military in general, as a de facto political party.

Call it Junta Party if you will, we can learn a lot by perceiving the military and the junta as a kind of unofficial political party.

The Leader of such party is invariably the coup leader: Prayuth. Membership includes all military officers. Instead of members having to pay party membership fees, their salaries are paid by taxpayers and that’s an advantage. Some are civilians who support military rule and should be regarded as party members as well.

As a party, the ideology of the junta is that of stability, national security and anti-corruption. Never mind if stability is ersatz and sustained through repression and restriction of rights to free assembly – or if anti-corruption doesn’t necessarily mean equal scrutiny on part of the junta and the armed forces.

The ideology of stability is attractive in a society where protesters often get carried away, affecting the daily lives of people in the capital and paralyzing key parts of Bangkok for months as demonstrated by both sides of the political divide the past decade.

The junta party needs to be recognized as legitimate to the eyes of the international community and thus needs to transit from direct military junta rule to elections with the hope that people such as Prayuth can return as prime minister through the support of proxy politicians.

Prayuth has the upper hand in the sense that the rules of the game, such as regulations governing general elections, were set by people who drafted the new constitution and organic laws pertaining to elections of MPs, senators and more.

These charter and law drafters were hand picked by Prayuth and hence in the next elections, most members of the upper house will be selected by himself too.

So the Junta Party gets to appoint people to set the rules for elections they will eventually compete – and it’s a major advantage. They also have two major free TV stations – army-run Channel 5 and Channel 7 – at their disposal to emit propaganda all the time.

Direct military rule is finite, so after four years, the junta will have to gain international recognition by having its leaders competing in elections – directly or indirectly.

While most political parties have only a few months to campaign, once the junta seized control through the May 2014 military coup, the rest of the time under dictatorial military rule could be perceived as an extended campaign period that only became apparent over the past few months, after Prayuth declared himself a “politician” and began behaving like one, going to meet potential voters by doing odd stunts. The difference is that Prayuth still maintains absolute power until a new cabinet report to work after elections.

Whether the Election Commission likes the de facto junta party or not, they can’t suggest the movement be dissolved unlike other parties for its roots are no less than the armed forces themselves.

If anything, it’s the election commissioners that could be fired by the junta, as recently experienced by commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, who criticized the junta and its role in politics and paid the prize by being removed.