Author: James Ockey, University of Canterbury
After seizing power in May 2014, Thailand’s General Prayuth Chan-ocha set out a ‘roadmap’ for a return to civilian rule. Portraying himself as a reluctant coup leader, he announced that an elected government would return by the end of 2015. The current proposal is an election in February 2019.
Whether Prayuth was initially reluctant or not, he now enjoys exercising political power. The junta has designed a constitution to entrench Military influence and open a path for Prayuth to continue as prime minister after the election.
When Prayuth seized power, he insisted it was necessary due to the chaos and violence of the conflict between red shirts and yellow shirts. Four years later, the General finds himself with a legitimacy double-bind. Scholars of civil–military relations note that most military regimes cede power within five years. Since military leaders come to power based on claims of restoring order, they have about five years to fulfil those promises. If they have restored order, their mission is accomplished and it is time to leave power. If they have not, the mission has failed and it is still time to leave power.
While it is possible to govern without legitimacy, it requires greater use of force and coercion when citizens do not accept the government’s authority. Overcoming this problem generally requires the creation of a constitutional government that is constrained enough to allow the continuation of power but convincing enough to retain legitimacy. Prayuth is seeking to follow this narrow path.
After taking power, Prayuth set about increasing the military’s role in both politics and society. Shortly after the coup, the military set up ‘reconciliation centres’ in every province and began sending out teams to visit villagers. Rather than promote reconciliation, they largely promoted conservative nationalism and justified the coup and the military’s role in politics. Military teams continue to visit villages on a regular basis.
The military junta has also conducted a series of political campaigns based on populist policies similar to those of the previous government. These campaigns aim at building legitimacy while also carrying an element of intimidation. Among the largest of these is the contemporary Sustainable Thainess campaign, which promoted a nationalistic, populist message both at the top and through the military’s visits to villages. While political Parties are currently barred from all political activities, the military has essentially been campaigning for the upcoming elections throughout the last four years.
The military junta also set about creating a new political system that would ensure the endurance of its power. The constitution ratified in 2017 established a mandatory 20-year strategic plan to constrain policymaking for future elected governments. The first post-election senate, which has a term of five years, will be appointed by the junta and has been granted wide ranging powers. Among these powers is one Prayuth seeks to use to return to office: if the Lower House is split on choosing a prime minister, the Senate joins the Lower House in the selection process.
The junta has sought to create a divided parliament by undermining large parties while supporting new and smaller ones — all while barring political parties from political activities altogether. The electoral law outlines a type of limited proportional representation that will benefit medium-sized parties.
New parties will be allowed to begin political activities ahead of existing parties. When established parties are allowed to participate, they will be required to quickly produce an updated list of all party members. This will be a huge challenge for the largest parties, as they have not been allowed to contact millions of existing members since the coup. In addition, parties will be required to hold internal primary elections, which risks introducing internal divisions.
The junta has actively sought to divide the Pheu Thai Party by pressuring its representatives to switch parties or abandon politics. Meanwhile, the Democrat Party may split over support for the military, as its former secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban plans to create a new party to support Prayuth. The military will also provide informal support to at least one pro-military party. A leading candidate is the Phalang Pracharat party of Prayuth’s former military prep school classmate Colonel Suchart Jantarachotikul. Other parties, including the new Anakhot Mai Party, have pledged to oppose a non-elected prime minister.
Even if Prayuth is reappointed as prime minister, he will not be able to avoid the legitimacy problem. He may find it difficult to get his way with a divided parliament and will govern only with the support of the hand-picked senate. He will face an increasingly restive populace that has, with each announcement of delayed elections, protested with more support. Under such circumstances, it is not at all clear that Prayuth will be seen as legitimate.
It is worth noting that in 1992, a Thai coup leader imposed himself on a reluctant parliament and populace. General Suchinda Kraprayoon subsequently faced widespread protests. Rather than step down, he chose force — which led to a massacre and brought dishonour to the military and to himself as he fell from power. General Prayuth may not face the same level of dissent and may have greater support. But he faces the same problems of legitimacy as Suchinda and may well find it very difficult to govern.
James Ockey is Associate Professor at the School of Language, Social and Political Sciences, University of Canterbury.