Pomp and Circumstance in Bangkok

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war
(Shakespeare, Othello, 1616)

Thailand is divided between pomp and circumstance, as is the electorate and the political class. While the elaborate coronation ceremonies of King Rama X fascinated the population, it gave more time for the formation of a new government behind the royal palace scene and the not so glorious war against the opposition and its hope to end the military government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha.
The splendors of the coronation, including the Buddhist and Brahmin rituals of purifying the king, “symbolizing his transformation from human to the divine”(The Nation), are hiding for a while the political shortcomings of Thailand’s planned return to a civilian government.

If the timing and coordination of the two events have been planned by the outgoing government of Prime Minister Prayut, it can only be called politically astute and clever, at least from an unemotional perspective outside the country. For the internal critics of the military regime, who had hoped that the election on 24 March would pave the way for a civilian democratic government, the disillusion must be immense.

The not unexpected bombshell:

With the announcement of the party list seats, the element of proportional representation, by the Election Commission, the remaining dreams of an opposition government look futile. With a couple of manipulations, the scale is tipping in favor of the military by a mere eight seats, 253 to 245. And with the additional votes of the handpicked senators, Prime Minister Prayut can be assured of his re-eletion.

Despite the careful planning and several pre-emptive interventions by the Prayut government, the “Thaksinist” Pheu Thai is the biggest party, followed by the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the political vehicle of the military government, which fared better than expected in the constituency votes but remained far short of a majority. The Democrat Party, the oldest party in Thailand, dreaming of winning a hundred seats, came out with only 33 plus 19 list mandates. Its tactical approach during the campaign, to join the opposition camp, may explain the bitter losses. Chairman Abhisit Vejjajiva, a  former Prime Minister, has resigned immediately. What the new leadership, to be elected shortly, will decide, whether to join the military or not, remains to be seen. Together with the 51 MPs of the Bhumjaithai Party, they would be the preferred coalition partners for the PPRP. Wednesday’s Bangkok Post quotes a PPRP source that Bhumjaithai and Democrats have been offered six cabinet post each, and Chartthaipattana two.

The unexpected spoiler is the young Future Forward Party (FFP) with its leader Thanatorn Juanroongruangkit, who managed to convince over 6 million voters, especially from the younger generation. With 30 direct mandates and 50 party list seats, FFP might have been the kingmaker and enable the opposition to prevail over the pro-military camp. The immediate consequence was a move to disqualify Thanatorn for violating the candidacy requirements. The EC says that he still held 675,000 shares in a media company. He says that he transferred them to his mother before the registration and that he can prove it, the case is pending. But a Bangkok Post comment came with the headline: “The Empire strikes back in Game of Thanathorn”… The English language newspapers, The Nation and Bangkok Post, are rather outspoken critics of the National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) cynical moves against the maverick.

A surprise is the allocation of one seat each to 12 small parties which did not reach the minimum number of votes, yet another point of contention and upcoming legal challenges.

Finally, coming Friday, May 10th, the government will announce the list of the 250 hand-picked Senators and send it to the King for approval. A new finesse of the electoral law is the fact that the new Prime Minister will be elected by the 500 strong Parliament and the 250 Senators together. This model is functioning quite well in Germany for the election of the president, with the difference, though, that the second chamber (Bundesrat) is the elected representation of the 16 federal states and not appointed by the government of the day. But appointed senators are a tradition in Thailand. Legal battles may continue for a while but Election Commission and even the Constitutional Court have lost the trust of the anti-military camp who doubt their impartiality.

The carefully crafted and rather complicated voting and parliamentary system has not guaranteed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s re-election automatically. Many voters seem to have opted for him for fear of more turmoil with fragile party coalitions on the anti-military side. But the upcoming coalition may be as fragile itself. One positive point for the Prayut government is the successful royal transition for which many pundits had predicted problems up to civil war because of the  image difference between the late King Bhumibhol and his son. Now, officially enthroned, King Vajiralongkorn or Rama X has “swept away the hearts of his subjects” (The Nation and Bangkok Post, which both spike their copies with congratulatory adverts and “long live the king” devotion). May Thailand glide safely through the next phase of her destiny like the royal barge on the Chao Phraya river:

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