Thai elections still haunted by Thaksin – Constitutional Court dissolves Thai Raksa Chart Party


Partyforumseasia: Calling it election fever would be an understatement. The long-anticipated general election on 24th March is stirring up emotions like never before in the country’s colorful election history. And, no surprise, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who is seeking election (since he assumed the premiership by ousting Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014 it can not be called re-election) is preparing the ground to prevent a surge of the surviving and diversified Thaksin-loyalists surviving predominantly in the Pheu Thai Party, the third incarnation of the plutocrat’s original Thai Rak Thai Party.
The Nation daily published a survey of the election chances on 6th March, which forecasts Pheu Thai as the biggest possible winner:

Nation survey

The survey focuses on the 350 constituency seats in the mixed-member proportional system and does not include the possible results of the 150 party-list members. This new electoral system has been designed to limit the chances of bigger parties to dominate the 500-seat lower house. But party strategists know how to play the piano even if it is not tuned to provide a level playing field. The Thai Raksa Chart Party, founded by many Pheu Thai politicians only four months ago, was therefore widely seen as a mechanism to add party-list seats to Pheu Thai.
These dreams have been shattered yesterday, 7th March, by the decision of the Bolratana 2Constitutional Court to dissolve the party with immediate effect. The surprise move of nominating Princess Ubolratana as a prime ministerial candidate turned out to be too risky a strategy. The court deemed it unconstitutional because it abused the Royalty, supposed to be above politics,  for electoral advantage. To make sure that they don’t find another loophole, the 13 members of the TRC executive committee have been banned from politics for the next ten years.

Nervousness about a deeply divided electorate is rather understandable and only the third place in the Nation survey for the Phalang Pracharat Party which supports Prime Minister Prayut must irritate the military camp. Interesting as well are the continuing regional party preferences, the Thaksin camp still dominating in the North and North East, and the Democrat Party equally dominating Bangkok and the South. The real question will come up after the votes will be counted, when coalitions will be needed to form a majority in the lower house. The incompatibilities seem to be clearly visible at the moment, but parties and politicians have shown extreme flexibility in the past when the spoils of ministerial power are being up for grabs.

 

No Royal Prime Minister for Thailand!


Partyforumseasia: Was it a PR-coup and a calculated provocation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha or simply a miscalculation? With obviously launched rumors that the just three months old Thai Raksa Chart Party was going to nominate a very important person as its nominee for Prime Bolratana 2Minister in the upcoming election on 24th March, the media attention was guaranteed. The bombshell exploded on the last possible date for the nomination last Friday, February 8, when Thai Raksa Chart’s leader Preechapol Pongpanit opened a brown envelope and presented as a nominee the former princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, the elder sister (67 years old) of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Royal Prime Ministers are rare, but Bulgaria’s former king, Simeon II, was PM from 2001 to 2004, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia from 1955 to 1960. 

The political bombshell of Princess Ubolratana’s candidacy was the clash in Thai politics between the royalist and military camp and the still strong lingering support for ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, PM from 2001 to 2006, perfected money politics and secured faithful voters in the rural areas as the first Bangkok politician to take care of them. Multi-ethnic Thailand has more than 50% dialect speaking minorities which are sensitive to official neglect and reduced job opportunities. They were the key to Thaksin’s stunning electoral successes and the popularity of the serial re-incarnations of his original Thai Rak Thai party.

A special feature in the ongoing election campaign is the split of the Thaksin party reincarnations. It is a strategic move of his followers to maximize their chances in the new electoral system which is clipping the wings of bigger parties. Thai Raksa Chart is fielding 175 candidates, and many bigwigs of the other Thaksinite Pheu Thai Party have joined.

The coup triumph with the royal top candidate was short-lived. The King intervened within the day and declared his elder sister’s candidacy as highly inappropriate and even unconstitutional since she is still considered a part of the royal family though she renounced her title decades ago when she married an American. But divorced and back in Thailand, she has participated in royal ceremonial functions. A singer and TV presenter, she is also popular for chairing and promoting charities. But she is not known for any special qualifications in politics.

As a result of this highly theatrical political episode, the future of the Thai Raksa Chart Party may be threatened by dissolution. As a failed coup, if Thaksin has been behind, it will definitely push the candidacy of former general Prayut, the incumbent Prime Minister.

 

Expectations, Skepticism, and Hope among Thailand’s Political Parties


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 Puea Thai leadergeneral. 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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