Forget Brexit and the EU parliamentary elections, South and Southeast Asia are having three HUGE general elections with the potential to radically direct the region’s, and yes the world’s, politics for the foreseeable future. So without further ado, here are the ‘‘things you should know’ about the first of these 3 upcoming elections, the Thai general elections of 24 March, 2019!
Alessandra Barrow, Contributor, The Netherlands
Thailand’s Election Wrap Up:
On Sunday the 24th of March, Thailand will go to the polls for what promises to be a “referendum on democracy” – this will be the first time Thais have voted since the 2014 military coup (Mayberry 2019). But before we get too excited, it is unlikely that Thailand will be heading back to the pre-2014 liberal democracy anytime soon because of the junta’s new constitution. Now, as an aside, it’s worth noting that the 2017 constitution is Thailand’s 20th constitution since the abolition of the monarchy. Introducing new constitutions is almost part of the military coup ritual that has become a prominent feature of Thai politics since 1932 ( Ghosh 2016). Following the coup in 2014, the Junta introduced Article 44, which remains in place, and grants the junta chief, General Prayut Chan-ocha. the power to intervene in anything he feels will harm Thailand’s peace and harmony, anything. This article enables soldiers to detain people or send to them to ‘attitude adjustment camps’ on a whim ( Thammarong 2019).
So what’s the deal with the new constitution? The 2017 constitution has changed who Thai voters can vote for; the only popularly elected body under the constitution is the 500 seat lower house of parliament, with 350 members which will be directly elected, with the remaining 150 awarded according to each party’s popularity in the polls. Then, the upper house will be entirely given to junta appointees (Thanthong-Knight 2018) . But, now here’s the kicker, to win the election, a party must secure a majority in both the houses of parliament. Which means that while most parties will need to get 376 seats to secure power, the pro-junta party Phalang Pracharat might only need to secure only 126 (Mayberry 2019).
So far, so autocratic, however, what is really interesting in this election is the soap opera of Thai party politics. The election started with the unprecedented news that the Thai Raksa Chart, an incarnation of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party (Thais loves Thai party), had chosen Princess Ubolratana Mahidol as its candidate for the election. Princess Ubolratana Mahidol is the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. This appointment sparked a tidal wave of outrage on social media among monarchists, who saw the move as Shinawatra meddling with the monarchy. The party was then promptly dissolved by the constitutional court on March 7th (Crispin 2019). The loss of the anti-junta Thai Raksa Chart has also left the field open for a new party: Future Forward.
Future Forward is a progressive party which has been incredibly outspoken in its criticism of the junta, vowing, if elected, to break Thailand’s cycle of democracy-suspending coups and, get this, proposes constitutional measures to limit the power of the military (Lohatepanont 2019). Future Forward was founded by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a rather handsome former student activist and (surprise, surprise) a billionaire tycoon! Remember; Thaksin Shinawatra was a billionaire telecoms tycoon, and a load of other Thai political leaders too. Juangroongruangkit is the former head of the Thai Summit Group, the largest motor-parts manufacture in Thailand. Nonetheless, Juangroongruangkit has insisted that he is not part of the privileged ‘elite’ that has previously ruled Thailand. However, with a party logo reminiscent of your average phone company, his party is incredibly popular among the Thai youth, who have been particularly attracted to his smooth marketing campaign and social media presence. Since the party’s Facebook page was set up, it has gained almost 300,000 followers ( Thammarong 2019). It remains to be seen what impact the party really have on the polls.
What is also particularly notable in this election is the ghost of Shinawatra’s ‘populist’ policies, notably the promise of big spending welfare projects. Part of the appeal and part of the reason for Shinawatra’s downfall (aside from the corruption) was his pro-poor reforms like Thailand’s first universal health care scheme, the 30 baht (US$1) health care scheme, or the village development fund, which predominantly poor rural voters benefited from. But these welfare/pro-poor policies, where vehemently opposed by predominantly middle class voters. Ultimately leading to the middle class-backed military coup in 2014 (Chachavalpongpun 2017). Yet, a few years down the line, in this election, the Prayut government has also introduced welfare policies namely, a new welfare card system, which, according to the Asian Development Bank, covers all 6 million people living below the poverty line. Another policy, which is also being heavily canvassed, is the monthly subsidies given to poor mothers to take care of their children This policy was kept especially quiet during the junta’s first term to avoid accusations of populism, but is now featuring prominently on the campaign trail. This change has come as opposition parties have increasingly been seen as posing a real threat to the junta’s parliamentary supremacy as they also adopted ‘populist’ welfare projects as part of their campaign platforms, with many promising to raise the monthly payments on the welfare card if elected (Janssen 2019). It also remains to be seen if any party can afford these big spend welfare reforms.
But aside from the more serious politics, there have been more amusing moments of this election, including pictures of General Prayut Chan-ocha attempting to ‘get down with the kids’ with very awkward photo poses (see above) as well as releasing a new song and generally singing a lot (Coconuts Bangkok 2019). All that remains to be remarked is that it is that only last month many political pundits did not believe the Thai general election would happen at all! This election has also seen huge participation of Thai youth, of note is the viral popularity of Rap against dictatorship, a vermantly anti-junta rap song, which topped the Thai iTunes downloads list last year (The Straits Times 2018). All we can do now is wait for Sunday’s results and hope the implementation of any new government is peaceful…. And that kids was a wrap up of the Thai general election campaign 2019.
General Prayut Chan-ocha’s song: https://www.facebook.com/prayutofficial/videos/643155386124276
Rap against dictatorship video