Many observers were looking toward the Thailand elections in late March as a sign of changing times; the country has been governed by a military junta for the past five years. However, as the anticipation built up prior to the election, questions began to surface over whether or not the ruling military party would respect the results of the election, or if the election would be fair and free. In the days since the election took place, these questions began to be answered as wide-spread reports of irregularities as well as tampering with or invalidation of ballots cast by citizens surfaced. All signs point to this election having been a ploy to gain the trust of the masses, rather than a genuine opportunity to hear and respect the will of the Thai people. This is a troubling and perhaps unfortunate turn of events for observers; however, it should not come as a surprise given the international precedent for this type of political maneuvering.
One of the key features of the Thai election controversy is that both sides are claiming meddling and interference by the opposition. There are reports of irregularities primarily pertaining to the number of votes cast, as some regions are reporting over 200 percent turnout. This type of irregularity and others like it indicate an attempt to undermine the election itself as well as the trust the public has in elections and democracy in general. This is a relatively well-known tactic of authoritarian regimes and a central theme in democratic erosion as outlined by Ozan in his work Stealth Authoritarianism. Ozan points to certain mechanisms, such as the alteration of electoral laws and democratic reforms, that undermine democracy; this is a prominent aspect of the junta’s new constitution they ratified in 2017. Another “key feature” of the new constitution, or rather of its enforcement, are the double standards the junta employs in applying it. By selectively applying the tenets of the constitution to the opposition and not the military’s proxy party, the junta effectively and within the letter of the law weakens the opposition.
The discrepancies in the enforcement of the constitution point toward a major disconnect between expectations for the elections and the reality of the situation. Many of the institutions that are crucial to counting votes and verifying the election were under government control before the election, including the appointment of the Election Commission by the proxy party. Also, until recently, the military had banned other political parties from meeting unless they had the direct support of the junta. With all of these factors considered, the idea that Thailand would have free and fair elections is somewhat farcical. Given the precedents that the junta had set leading up to the election, it should not be a surprise to anyone that the election results are still a mystery. Observers who understand the process of democratic erosion also understand that even if the junta’s party “wins,” it behooves the regime to alter the vote counts to paint an even better picture of itself to the public – even though they seem to lack popular support. All of these factors create an illusion of overwhelming victory for the junta regardless of the actual results.
To combat these setbacks, the anti-junta political parties have attempted to form a majority coalition in the lower chambers; this is a move that has been met with stiff opposition from the military itself. The junta described the move as purely political and declared that it would have no impact on the final results once released. This rhetoric displays an unwillingness to honor a defeat in the election, and – considering the lengths the junta has gone to in the past five years to quash opposition thinking and parties – it should not catch onlookers off guard. With this in mind, as outsiders await the official results of the election, the potential for a regime change in Southeast Asia’s largest economy shrinks each day.
Photo by Wanaporn Yangsiri on Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero license
Your statement “The discrepancies in the enforcement of the constitution point toward a major disconnect between expectations for the elections and the reality of the situation” is valid, but I believe that for the scholars who have been keen on Thai politics, the election turnout was not unexpected. Some observers even say that the elections was postponed several times to give way to the new constitution. This, I believe, is correct. Between 2014 when the junta took over the government and 2019 when the elections was held, the junta planned its every move. Furthermore, the 2017 constitution restricted civil liberties and reduced the rights of other political parties, increasing the power of the military. It also enabled the junta to appoint the members of the upper house who will vote for the Prime Minister. Thus, the 2017 constitution really set things for the junta’s political platform. Everything has been taken care of so that when the elections would come, the results would be in their favor no matter the odds. Also, I believe that the elections just served as a formal process to project to the Thai people that the junta want democracy like them. The elections itself is democratic, but the strategy and tactics employed behind are the exact opposite.
Your title is correct – the Thai elections brought “a false sense of hope”. And if I were to hope one thing with regard to your work, it would be that the discussion about the junta involved more of its actions that led to democratic erosion such as the power of appointment that I aforementioned and the banning of meeting of other political parties before the elections, among others.
Upon reading your work, I asked, “What if General Prayut Chan-o-cha did not win? Will Thailand’s democracy be truly restored?” But then, I have come to a thought if the first question was never a possibility, given all the junta’s political maneuvering.