Thailand’s March 24 vote will not matter

Whatever its outcome, the general election will likely result in an unworkable government.

Thailand''s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha drinks tea with people who are exercising in Lumphini Park in Bangkok
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha takes tea with people who are exercising in Lumphini Park, ahead of the general election in Bangkok on March 20, 2019 [Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

The people of northeast Thailand have learned to be resilient. More than a century ago, local power was lost to Bangkok which viewed their ethnicity, language, and culture as barbarian. They have been accused of being socialists and communists, and suspected of harbouring republican sentiments. The region is the poorest economically and Northeasterners have long been characterised in popular culture as backwards, buffoonish, uneducated, and gullible.

And yet, over the last two decades, the people of this region have been the strongest advocates of democracy and human rights. The political parties they have supported have won every national election since 2001. They are resilient because in the same period three times the party they supported was dissolved by the courts. Twice their prime ministers have been removed by court order. And twice they have been overthrown by military coups.

This region, with a third of the Thai population, has another chance to direct the country’s future through the general election scheduled for March 24. Campaign rallies, many with tens of thousands attending, are now commonplace in the region.

But behind all the cheering and flag waving at rallies in the Northeast, also known as “Isaan”, there is also a grim acceptance that the election laws and the new constitution are designed to frustrate the will of the majority. If these legal obstructions prove inadequate, the military government has other tricks up its sleeve if the vote goes terribly wrong.

The election is the latest step in a long game laid out by the coup-makers, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which overthrew the elected government in May of 2014.

The first step in the plan was to bring into effect a constitution that would weaken larger parties and create conditions for unstable coalition governments to be elected.

The 2017 constitutional amendments allow the Thai military to appoint the 250-seat senate in its entirety, which, along with the 500-seat House of Representatives, votes on the appointment of prime minister. This means that the army-backed NCPO can give the premiership to anyone of their liking (such as current prime minister and coup leader, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha) if they win just a quarter of the House seats.

The amendments also linked the constitution to a 20-year strategic plan that would make any policy that is not in line with it unconstitutional and create a supra-government body over any government until 2038.

The second step was for the military government to use its absolute power to pursue popular policies that could win the hearts and minds of the majority, with the help of a loyal media sector.

The third step was to set out restrictive election laws that could be used to remove opposition figures or parties. At present, one democratic party has been dissolved, the leadership of another party could be jailed, and the Pheu Thai party, the largest of the parties aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is under investigation for allegedly having Shinawatra control its affairs from abroad. 

All the democratic parties in the meantime are tiptoeing around, trying to avoid violating any election laws.

The NCPO succeeded in passing a largely undemocratic constitution but with a weak economy and limp policies to address rural problems, the military government has failed to win much support, especially in the Isaan, where the latest poll for the region indicates its Palang Pracharat Party is projected to get only 11 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, the same poll showed that an overwhelming majority will vote for democratic, anti-military parties.

Political “revenge” seems to be on the mind of many voters in the northeast. Despite the playing field skewed against them, it is expected they would come out en masse to inflict a humiliating blow to the NCPO.

At the same time, insiders of pro-democracy camp say in a matter-of-fact way that they expect their parties to be dissolved or otherwise crippled in some way. They have no illusions about this election. At best, the pro-democracy parties will be able to cobble together enough of a majority in the House and form a government that will find itself restricted by the 20-year plan, various constitutional provisions, and a senate poised to defeat any attempts to amend the constitution.

A less ideal scenario is a democratic coalition winning the elections but failing to secure enough seats in the House to prevent Prayuth from becoming prime minister. The majority in that case would strangely become the majority opposition against a minority government. One potential chink in NCPO’s plan is the constitutional provision on no-confidence vote: they are left entirely in the hands of the House, which means the so-called majority opposition could vote the prime minister and his cabinet out of power.

The worst outcome, perhaps most expected by Northeasterners, is that in desperation, the NCPO elects the nuclear option: to use the constitutional court to eliminate as many opposition leaders or parties as possible, eventually, maybe, giving its candidates and other pro-military parties a majority in the house.

Whichever way this election goes, it is clear that its outcome will likely be an unworkable government.

But this does not necessarily bother the Northeastern political leaders. After all, they have learned patience and perseverance.

The military government will likely take extreme measures to prevail in the upcoming election. Let them, Isaan people say. Every action they take in this direction will only serve to further delegitimise the military government and pave the way for a free and fair election.

It is that one that will really count and that the northeast will surely dominate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.