Subverting the mandate: On the Thai elections and the military establishment

Thailand’s military should respect the popular vote or risk turmoil 

July 24, 2023 12:10 am | Updated 09:42 am IST

In the parliamentary elections in May, Thai voters sent a clear message to the country’s conservative military establishment, which had wrested power from an elected government in 2014. The reformist Move Forward and the pro-democracy Pheu Thai parties emerged as the largest parties, while all the pro-establishment parties did poorly. Yet, the Thai military went after the architect of the Opposition victory, the 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat. During the campaign, he had promised to end the “cycle of coups”, scrap the military-drafted constitution and amend the controversial lèse-majesté law, which criminalises any public criticism of the monarchy. His reformist views helped him connect with the masses and lead his party to victory, but also made him a target of the military. After the elections, eight Opposition parties, including the Move Forward and Pheu Thai, came together to form a bloc, which had a majority in the 500-member elected House. The bloc nominated Mr. Pita as their prime ministerial candidate. But in Thailand’s 750-member bicameral Parliament (500 elected MPs and 250 Senators appointed by the military), a candidate needs the support of 376 lawmakers to form the government. In Mr. Pita’s first attempt, he got only 13 votes from the Senate. Thailand’s Constitutional Court also suspended him from Parliament in a case involving allegations that he had violated electoral laws by not disclosing his shares in a media company.

This is not the first time the establishment is going after popular parties. In 2019, the reformist Future Forward Party, which emerged as the third largest bloc, was dissolved and its leaders banned from politics. What the generals fail to understand is that the crackdown on pro-democracy parties has not helped sway public mood. The Move Forward emerged from this vacuum and became the largest party in Parliament in four years. Thailand has also seen widespread pro-democracy protests; though crushed by the junta, the embers of public resentment still burn. The May election results were an opportunity for the junta to cede power to a legitimate government. But by blocking the winner from forming the government and suspending him from Parliament, the generals have made it clear that they will not tolerate any call for reforms. This is a dangerous move that has taken Thailand a step closer to the Myanmar model, where the military coup in 2021 saw the arrest of democratically elected leaders, and civil war. The Thai Opposition should stay united in the face of the military’s pressure tactics and continue to push the Senate to support the candidate who has the backing of the most elected lawmakers.

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