Sunday’s general election will, at best, return Thailand to a semi-democratic system no matter the results, even with voter euphoria expected to translate into a high turnout.
The outcome is likely to unfold in at least two likely scenarios with deep repercussions, each with their own challenges for democracy.
Scenario 1: The return of coup leader-dictator-prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, as an “elected” premier.
This is the dream scenario of many army generals, pro-junta supporters and ultraroyalists. It will prove a successful transformation of yet another coup leader and self-appointed prime minister into elected prime minister.
Expect Prayuth to be less dictatorial as he will no longer wield absolute power, although the retired general will probably maintain his penchant for dictating. He will still preside over the 20-year National Strategy Committee, thus compelling state power in his desired direction for two decades. He will have 250 senators mostly selected by him. Prayuth will probably need to entertain coalition partners, and that means compromising on some policies, however.
The bad news is that the junta has at last managed to erect a proper democratic facade through the ballot box while maintaining a lot of power through the appointed senate.
This will encourage younger generals to follow Prayuth’s footsteps, as they have proven lucrative and rewarding. Already, Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, himself the son of a former coup leader, won’t rule out staging another coup.
Returning the military to the barracks would be impossible even in the medium-term, as the junta leader and his men have partially transformed Thailand into an elected stratocracy.
Thailand may also immediately be caught in a crisis of legitimacy if the pro-junta coalition only wins a little over 126 MP supports and relies on the Prayuth-selected 250 member upper house to vote Prayuth back to office. Unfair is an understatement in an election contest where one of the leading PM candidates is the man who is selecting virtually all of the senate, which will constitute one-third of the votes that shall decide who gets to become the next prime minister.
Already, the last campaign message on the election posters of pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party suggest the country will continue to be held hostage: “If you want peace and order … choose uncle Prayuth.”
This scenario will put a heavy burden on Thai citizens who wish to see a quicker return to true democracy.
Scenario 2: Pro-democracy camp forms a government.
While it would be good news for democracy, the new government would almost certainly be a fragile coalition due to election rules rewritten to disadvantage powerful parties. Reforming the army and returning the generals and their men to the barracks will be an uphill battle.
There was little appetite for doing so when Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister in 2011. She did nothing against then-army chief Prayuth, who took part in the bloody crackdown on Redshirt protesters in 2010. No significant reforms of the armed forces took place under her watch.
Will Pheu Thai and/or Future Forward have the will and the skill to do better?
Both parties have vowed to slash military spending, but more will be needed to ensure coup d’etats become a thing of the past for good.
Some have suggested creating a joint chief of staff system similar to the United States, so the army chief can no longer authorize troop mobilization on a whim. It will definitely take more than just that, as the challenge is to alter the mindset of the public.
If they push too hard, there could be a counter-reaction – and possible coup. If they don’t do anything to reform the army, it will continue to be a state within a state and the coup threat will persist.
Already, on Wednesday, Benya Nandakwang, an MP candidate from pro-junta party Action Coalition for Thailand, predicted a coup in event of an anti-junta camp win.
“Personally, I think if the hell money democracy faction wins the election, eventually there will be another coup. Wanna see it?” Benya wrote on Facebook.
Thailand risks being permanently trapped in the vicious cycle of coups and junta rule, followed by elected governments and paralyzing political crises, followed by more coups if nothing is done to send the soldiers back to the barracks for good.
This is the paramount tasks awaiting after the election for the pro-democracy camp.