Partyforumseasia: Thailand’s political history has not been “smooth as silk”, as the tourism promoting slogan tried to characterize the country. Since the end of the absolute monarchy, in1932, there were seven failed and eleven successful military coups, the last one in May 2014. Since then, under Prime Minister and former general Prayut Chan-o-cha, a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has banned activities of the political parties, but promised the eventual return to democracy. The volatile and splintered party landscape had produced massive unrest and turmoil since, in 1998, Thaksin Shinawatra founded the Thai Rak Thai Party which swept him to power in 2001. The ingredients of his meteoric rise were lots of money and a hitherto neglected voter base in the poor North and Northeast. The political establishment, aka Bangkok elite, did everything to fight Thaksin. His party was banned by the constitutional court, but survived in re-incarnations. The second one is still around as Puea Thai or Pheu Thai, and the third one surfaced only a few days ago, on 7 November, under the name of Thai Raksa Chart Party.
The much anticipated return to civil rule has been delayed until now, promised elections were postponed, but a new constitution and many institutional changes have been implemented in the meantime. To be fair, though, the NCPO-junta-regime has at least managed a smooth royal transition from the revered King Bhumibol to his less popular son Vajiralongkorn, for which internal and external pundits had predicted turmoil and uprising.
Sensing the popular expectations, PM Prayut has now hinted that the polls might be held on 24th February 2019. Deputy Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon, has informed the impatient parties that the partially relaxed ban on political activities will be lifted, once a new election law for the national parliament will be enacted on 12th December, followed by a royal decree to confirm the election date.
Here are some glimpses into the preparations of the main competitors:
The Democrat Party, founded in 1946, is the oldest political party, and has played an important role since. The liberal-conservative party opposed military rule already in the 1990s, led government coalitions several times, but had no chance against Thaksin Shinawatra’s power and money politics. Its leader since 2005, Abhisit Vejjajiva, re-elected last week, was Prime Minister from 2008 to 2011. The Democrats are strong with a well established party organization and with a solid power base in the South and in Bangkok. The party machinery is well prepared for the campaign.
The Puea Thai Party has just elected a new chairman, Viroj Pao-in, a retired police general. The problem of the party is the looming uncertainty whether the junta or the courts might dissolve it before the election, because they suspect the exiled former leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, to pull the strings from his exile in Dubai. Puea Thai and connected groups, supported by the so-called United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or Red Shirts, have won the last five elections and were only stopped by the courts and the military,
Another ally in the “pro democracy camp” is the Future Forward Party, led by young tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
But there is also a new kid on the block, the recently founded Thai Raksa Chart Party. Observers in Thailand suspect that this third re-incarnation of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai is the plan B or safety net in case the Puea Thai should be dissolved. Marketing themselves as “political young blood” politicians, the core members and leaders come predominantly from political families related to Thaksin, including party leader Preechapol Pongpanich. Whether this new group is fighting fit for a nationwide campaign remains to be seen.
This year alone, more than 30 new parties have applied for registration with the Election Commission, in addition to the about 16 established ones. As mentioned, Thailand’s party landscape is volatile and splintered, and at the same time dynamic and flexible. The main fault line, however, is the social and political divide between urban royalists, known as the “yellow shirts”, and Thaksin’s supporters and his rural support base, the “red shirts”.
High hopes on a return to civil rule and liberal democracy may be premature. The determination of Prime Minister Prayut and his military backing to keep in control should not be underestimated. The “precautions” of the military in neighboring Myanmar to control Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government should be a warning.
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