Thailand’s Long and Winding Road Back to Democracy

Thai soldiers in Bangkok summer 2014We haven’t blogged about Thai politics for a while now – and whenever we’ve done so more recently we’ve usually disabled the comments function.
That is not just because there’s nothing happening or we’re not interested in your opinion – it’s mainly because criticism of the military government is virtually prohibited.
What’s there to say anyway? On a positive note, no, there are no longer violent protests and clashes between antagonized political groups since the military has “restored order” on the streets of Bangkok; no airport blockades as in 2007, no grenade attacks and torching of shopping malls, no clashes between security forces and protesters, no blockades of government buildings and public roads as in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013 … well, all that “bad publicity stuff” the kingdom had become (in)famous for in the last decade.
Thailand is peaceful, orderly and safe, at least on the face of it.
On the downside, post-coup Thailand is obviously not a “full-fledged” democracy in the Western sense of the word at the moment; political activism – including by political parties – is virtually prohibited; freedom of expression is limited; the opposition has been effectively silenced; and a return to electoral democracy “as we know it” is still a distant prospect. The military government under junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha wants to “reconcile” the politically divided nation first. And that takes times.

So what’s in the pipeline for Thai politics in the next couple of months and years?
In theory, democracy-loving Thais could cast their votes at the ballot box again sometime in late 2016. That’s just about a year from now. A democratically elected government could then be in place by January 2017 or so.
Granted, the coup leaders had initially promised a general election for late 2015 and then repeatedly postponed it. Then again, 2016 or 2017 is still better than nothing. A return to Western-style democracy would at least be on the horizon. But alas, there are a number of obstacles.

First, Thailand needs a new constitution before a fresh general election can be held. And this elementary milestone in the junta’s “road map to democracy” is obviously harder to accomplish than you’d think.
In April, Thailand’s Constitution Drafting Committee (whose 36 members were exclusively appointed by the junta) has presented its new draft constitution, and well, it’s just as controversial as the previous post-coup charter of 2007 – also written by a military-appointed body. As we commented then:

While the drafters obviously hope that the new “civic-centric” charter will protect the politically divided nation from what they call “parliamentary dictatorship”, critics point out it that it would weaken political parties and usher in a period of short-lived, weak coalition governments.
Not only does the charter draft include controversial provisions that allow for an unelected prime minister (…) the increased power of senators, two-thirds of whom would be appointed rather than elected, is another contentious issue.
A contentious issue that the public is not allowed to discuss though.

In fact, not only were the general public prohibited from debating/criticizing the draft charter, political parties were not allowed to hold meetings and debate it either.

But the controversy doesn’t end here. The Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) has now made some last-minute additions to the charter that obviously won’t go down well with “democratically minded” Thais either.
One drastic new provision calls for the establishment of an unelected “crisis panel” which would be stacked with members of the military (only two out of 23 members would come from the elected government) and “help guide the country towards reform and reconciliation”.
While this smacks of “guided democracy” and is apparently meant to ensure that the coup-makers can pursue their policies even after a general election, in the face of the country’s political conflicts of the past 10 years, many voters might still agree with the necessity for a reform panel that is not under the control of the government.
But here’s the catch: The “crisis panel” would also be empowered to “intervene in any political crisis that grinds the country to a halt” and seize control from the elected government by taking over executive and legislative powers. As Alan Dawson comments in his opinion piece at the Bangkok Post:

When these gentlemen (no ladies need apply) feel there’s a political emergency of some kind going on, or decide the government isn’t functioning, or declare there’s a problem with national administration, they will step in. The government can’t stop them.

Khaosod English notes that the committee would be

vested with the authority to “commit or suppress” any action in the event an elected government is unable to exercise its power due to “chaos” in the country.

While the rationale behind this “dictatorial” provision (in the ancient Roman usage of the term) may be somewhat comprehensible in the context of Thailand’s most contemporary history – you know, street protests, grenade attacks and all that stuff – well, it obviously doesn’t smell much like full-blown democracy.
Little surprisingly, the former ruling party, which was ousted in last year’s military takeover, has publicly criticized the draft charter for “[refusing] to accept the sovereignty of the people and [trying] to prolong [the] coup makers’ powers”. According to the Bangkok Post, the party said in a statement published on Saturday:

Even after several revisions, the draft doesn’t recognise the sovereignty of the people. It perpetuates the powers of the coupmakers and the institutions it set up. (…) It will bring about a weak coalition government and the prescribed mechanisms will lead to failures and more conflicts. (…)
It’s a constitution that seeks to freeze democracy and doesn’t want democracy to be the mechanism to solve the country’s problems. (…)

But the controversial crisis panel isn’t the only “unusual” mechanism the draft charter provides for. To quote Alan Dawson one more time:

The military added yet another layer of self-protection last week. The generals felt confident enough to announce through the CDC’s military-appointed spokesman Gen Lertrat Ratanavanich that the first senate will consist of 77 elected members and 123 chosen, not by a representative committee of Thai citizens, but by Gen Prime Minister Prayut and his military government. Gen Lertrat said “it makes sense” that some of those 123 military-picked senators will come directly from the government itself.

Needless to say that the draft constitution isn’t particularly popular not just with political parties (and Thaksin), but presumably also with ordinary Thais who want to see a swift return to Western-style democracy.
But hey, the public will get a chance to reject it, eventually.

In May, the military government said it would hold some kind of referendum on the controversial draft charter, most likely next January; a process which, on the downside, would delay polls until at least September 2016 – if the public approves of the charter – but also involves the risk that an election may be pushed back even further.
In addition – before the public even gets a chance to decide on the kingdom‘s political future – the National Reform Council (NRC) will vote in early September whether to accept or reject the charter. If the NRC should reject the draft charter (as ironically demanded by conservative groups) a brand-new committee would have to be set up to draw up a completely new charter. In that case, a public referendum and a general election would be delayed by at least six more months – and indefinitely prolong the lifetime of the military government.

Last but not least, there’s another obstacle.
Not only junta opponents but also supporters of the military government have come out to criticize the draft charter. Most prominently a “new” group founded by former protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has called on the NRC to reject the constitution draft in order to pave the way for more dramatic “reforms before election” (which was also a slogan of Suthep and his mob of anti-government protesters of 2013/2014 who effectively called on the military to stage a coup against the embattled government of Yingluck Shinawatra). It remains to be seen how much influence Suthep still wields over his royalist supporters and the Thai political arena.

To cut a long story short (it’s long enough already), Thais who favour a quick return to Western-style democracy are caught between a rock and a hard place.
The more out of touch with “traditional” democracy the draft constitution turns out to be, the more likely it will get rejected either by the NRC or in a public referendum – which would ironically play directly into the hands of junta supporters and conservatives who want the military government to remain in power – indefinitely.
It’s a no-win situation for Thais who silently disagree with the draft charter but are keen to return to the ballot box a.s.a.p. – and potential breeding grounds for more political conflicts in a supposedly “reconciled” nation.

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