Is Thailand now a dictatorship or a democracy?

Henry

Thailand held parliamentary elections in May this year. Only recently, after months of tug-of-war and behind-the-scenes negotiations, a new prime minister was elected, who replaced the sitting prime minister and Prayut Chan-ocha.

Army chief Prayut Chan-ocha came to power in a coup in 2014, was later named prime minister, and won heavily rigged elections in which the opposition was virtually eliminated. After that, he had a new constitution written which gives the army control over the senate, the upper house of parliament. However, his party and other parties supporting him did poorly in the elections earlier this year.

The best performing party was the newly formed radical liberal Move Forward party with their youthful leader Pita Limjaroenrat. Their goal was to properly challenge the established order. They have even overtaken the well-known and popular Pheu Thai (For Thailand) party, which is also against the established order. However, Limjaroenrat of Move Forward could not succeed in being elected prime minister, because his party does not have an absolute majority and, moreover, the senate’s nominated members voted against him.

Finally, Shretta Thavisin of the second placed Pheu Thai was elected after many negotiations, not only by his own party, but also by representatives of other parties, including the military. This may seem strange, because Pheu Thai is actually an opponent of the established order and it was expected that Move Forward and Peu Thai would join forces against the army and the conservative elements. To understand the moves, a little background on Thai politics and recent history is necessary.

The country has been divided into two “colour blocks” for some time, namely the “Red Shirts” and the “Yellow Shirts”. The “Red Shirts” are fans of the populist billionaire Thaksin Sinawatra and his family and especially represent the poor, rural population who feel neglected. It does not lack a certain irony that a wealthy businessman plays the role of advocate for the poor, which for him is a means to power. When he was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, he bought the loyalty of the poor through all kinds of welfare grants.

The “Yellow Shirts” are mostly the urban middle class, especially around the capital Bangkok, and are those who would like to maintain the existing system and who are particularly loyal to the monarchy and also have the military on their side. The pattern has been repeating itself for years: in elections, the party or parties of the “Red Shirts” usually win, such as Pheu Thai, but the established order prevents the seizure of power. If the “Red Shirts” do rule, their government is so chaotic that the army intervenes and puts someone from the yellow camp in charge, who then rules until the next election, where the other side wins again.

Thaksin Shinawatra recently returned to Thailand from his long-term exile in Dubai. He was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison for corruption during his term as prime minister and was arrested upon his arrival, but has since been released on health grounds. It is expected that he will soon receive a royal pardon, probably in exchange for his withdrawal from the political arena.

His return coincides with the recent election of the new first minister of Pheu Thai. It is expected that he pulled the strings behind the scenes so that an agreement between the old enemies, Pheu Thai and the military elite, could be reached to knock out Move Forward. For the elite, Thaksin is actually a red carpet, but in the face of the threat from Move Forward’s radicalism, his party is considered the lesser evil.