Is Democracy dead in Thailand?: A timeline of its demise
A “funeral” for democracy was held at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument as the country moves into its third month without an elected Prime Minister. The progressive anti-military Move Forward Party took the win in May’s election but has continually been prevented from claiming their prize. It has left many rightfully wondering, what was the point of their vote? How can a majority vote be so easily disregarded? The answer lies in the decade since the military junta’s 2014 coup.
2014: Military Coup.
Just under 10 years ago the Pheu Thai Party was leading the country. However, after numerous protests against the party’s progressive policies, the Thai military staged a successful coup justifying it by the need to “restore order” in the country. Former army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, assumed power of the country, supported by the King Maha Vajiralongkorn who wanted to preserve the power of the monarchy.
2017: Military introduces new constitution.
In 2017, Prayuth Chan-cha implemented a new constitution with changes ensuring the continuation of military influence in the country. The military required that an elected Prime Minister must secure a majority vote from the entire Parliament, including the Senate. The trick is the Senate is appointed by the military’s party. Essentially, only candidates the military approves can be elected Prime Minister.
2019: Democracy almost prevails.
In the 2019 election, the military (already in power) competed under the name of Paland Pracharath (People’s State Power) party with Prayuth Chan-ocha still leading. Preceding the election, Paland Pracharath was accused of undermining the legitimacy of the election by disbanding most opposition parties and introducing stringent campaigning rules. Nonetheless, with the population growing increasingly tired of military rule, the anti-military Pheu Thai Party claimed the win with 136 seats. Like the current election, without a majority win of 376 seats they were required to form a coalition to secure the leading role in Parliament.
Future Forward Party (now Move Forward Party) was their obvious partner. Coming in third with 80 seats won, Future Forward Party was even more progressive and anti-military than the Pheu Thai Party. However, after a complaint was made by the military party, the Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party on the basis that their leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, had broken election rules by owning shares in a media company. Similar setbacks in the formation of Pheu Thai’s coalition eventually meant they were unable to secure their win. Hence, Paland Pracharath continued their rule.
June - December 2020: Protests begin.
A number of protests took place across the nation criticising the continued influence of both the military and the monarchy. Some protesters called for a new election and the dissolution of the current government. Many of these protests were held at the Democracy Monument. Some protesters were arrested for their criticism of the monarchy which is in breach of the Lèse-Majesté Law. According to the law, individuals can face up to 3-15 years in prison for defaming, insulting or threatening the monarchy or any of its members.
2021: Military fights back.
Increasing arrests of protest leaders and the continued spread of the COVID-19 pandemic quelled the protest movement.
August 2022: An end to Prayuth Chan-ocha’s reign?
The Pheu Thai Party submitted a petition protesting Prayuth Chan-ocha’s term as Prime Minister. They argued that his legal term as Prime Minister began when he led the successful military coup in 2014, therefore exceeding the legal 8-year term limit. The Thai Constitutional Court suspended Prayuth Chan-ocha from Parliament in response to the petition.
September 20, 2022:
The Thai Election Commission set a draft date for the 2023 general election as May 7. According to the Constitution, the ruling party has a maximum term limit of 4 years. Thereafter the House of Representatives is dissolved by royal decree and a General Election takes place within 45 days. Paland Pracharath’s term limit was set to expire on March 23, 2023.
September 30, 2022: Military wins again.
The Constitutional Court announced they reject the proposal given by the Pheu Thai Party in their petition. They argued that Prayuth Chan-ocha’s term began in 2017 when the military’s new Constitution was introduced. Prayuth Chan-ocha is allowed to continue his reign as Prime Minister and leader of Paland Pracharath.
May - June 2023: General election takes place.
The Move Forward Party (MFP) claimed a shock victory in the general election, winning 151 seats out of the 500 in the House of Representatives. They quickly formed a coalition with second place Pheu Thai Party who secured 141 seats. To further their majority they aligned with a number of other smaller parties. Overall, the MFP were able to secure 312 seats via the coalition.
July 2023: The aftermath.
The first Prime Ministerial Vote was held on July 13. Pita Limjaroenrat failed to secure the position, winning only 324 votes compared to the 376 required. Securing the position was always going to be an uphill battle for Limjaroenrat and the MFP for a combination of reasons. The military-constructed constitution created many challenges. According to the constitution, the Prime Minister can only be elected if they secure a majority vote in both houses of Parliament. Although the 500 members of the House of Representatives are democratically elected, all the current 250 senators were appointed by the military. With his progressive policies that aim to curb the influence of the military, the Senate naturally voted against his nomination for Prime Minister. For Pita Limjaroenrat to have a realistic chance at becoming Prime Minister, he needed to form a coalition with at least 376 seats. If he had that level of support, he would not need to rely on any votes from the senate.
Nonetheless, the MFP renominated Limjaroenrat as their candidate for the second election the following week in July. However, the Election Commission flagged Limjaroenrat for holding shares in a media company. In Thailand, it is against the law for a member of Parliament to own shares in a media company. It is for this very breach that the MFP’s previous leader was expelled from Parliament. As a result, the Constitutional Court suspended Limjaroenrat from Parliament, blocking him from being elected as Prime Minister.
August 2023: The end of the road for the MFP?
With their only Prime Ministerial candidate suspended, the MFP moved to allow the Pheu Thai Party to put forward one of their three Prime Ministerial candidates for election. Of the three, Srettha Thavisin, a property tycoon, was selected. However, in a twist of events, the Pheu Thai Party excluded the MFP from the coalition, joining with military supported parties. Both entities, the MFP and the military supported parties, had refused to enter a coalition together.
On August 4, a parliamentary session was held where the Pheu Thai Party planned to propose and vote on their Prime Ministerial candidate. Conversely, Parliament President Wan Muhamad Noor Matha adjourned parliament citing the need to review the Move Forward Party’s petition to reconsider the blocking of Pita Limjaroenrat. The Pheu Thai Party protested the decision with the Constitutional Court announcing it requires until the 16th of August to determine how the vote for Prime Minister will proceed. Until then, the military will continue to assume leadership.
There are a multitude of scenarios that could unfold. The first, although unlikely, is that the Constitutional Court accepts the MFP’s petition and allows Pita Limjaroenrat to be nominated for Prime Minister with the senate’s voting power diminished as per their petition. The second scenario would see the petition rejected. The Pheu Thai Party would again put forward Srettha Thavisin for Prime Minister. If his bid is unsuccessful there is a chance the conservative parties could form a minority government, with the Senate likely to vote in favour of their nominated Prime Ministerial candidates. Finally, if none of the above unfolds, it is possible that the military could retain power.
The public’s growing frustration has political commentators concerned that violence in the country is becoming increasingly likely. Barriers now surround Parliament with forces being readied for protests to go awry. In Thailand, military coups have often followed social unrest. If the political stalemate is not resolved soon, history may just well repeat itself.
Abby Wellington is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts and Journalism (International Relations and Economics) at The University of Queensland. An aspiring foreign affairs reporter, Abby is interested in the changing nature of international security in a globalised society.