As Thailand heads into an election year, the parties opposed to the junta are beginning to direct their fire to Thailand’s new constitution itself. This is worrisome and may indicate future political strife. Thailand’s junta has built a firewall against future political instability  – the key first indicator to Thailand’s future will be the results of the 2019 election

A seminar this week, attended by key parties opposed to the junta and the current Prime Minister, gives a good insight into the political challenges facing the Thailand’s body politic next year after the general election, when it is hoped a new government is formed. Thailand’s new constitution itself will be a target and the Future Forward Party will be driving a radical progressive agenda.

It now looks like Thailand is going to the polls at the end of February under its new constitution approved by the Thai people in 2016. The new constitution was designed to prevent further political instability in the country in a number of ways, chief among them, giving an extended say in the government to the military, an election process that favors a multitude of small parties and a strong election commission to uphold electoral law. As things stand, there is a good chance of Thailand’s existing Prime Minister forming a new government next year. In the last week, however, there have been calls from political parties to alter the constitution or even to scrap it altogether. A seminar held this week saw the major parties come together to critique the constitution. It was organised by the small Peoples Party for Freedom and was attended by some of the bigger political groupings.

Among them, the Pheu Thai the party that currently holds a lead in the opinion polls. The party was the outright winner of the last election that produced a government in Thailand. That was in 2011, when it won an overall majority and elected Thailand’s first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Yingluck’s is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who still remains a force in Thai politics since being ousted in the 2006 coup. Both have fled Thailand, defying court bail provisions and both having been sentenced to prison terms for corruption relating to their period in power for corruption and mismanagement.

Future Thai Party very strident in opposition to the military junta and is calling for prosecutions

Political parties opposed to the junta and Prayut begin to direct their fire to the constitution voted on by the Thai public in 2016. The Future Forward Party want to immediately begin a redrafting process. This may cause concern for the junta whose key mission is political and national stability. The results of the election to the lower house of parliament and the performance of the pro government Phalang Pracharat Party which is reported to be considering nominating Prayut as Prime Minister after the election will tell how likely to be successful the junta’s plans are in both the short term and long term.

The Pheu Thai Party was joined by Thailand oldest political party, the Democrat Party, at the seminar. The Democrats, still led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, have cried foul in recent days over the new election boundaries being drawn up for next year’s election by Thailand’s election commission. Finally, the radical Future Forward Party also took part. This party, led by businessman, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has been fiercely critical of the current government, the military junta and the 2014 coup. Mr. Juangroongruangkit was charged by Thai police in September with violation of Thailand’s Computer Crime act for defaming the junta in public. This could result in a prison sentence or substantial fine when it comes to court. Thailand’s new political leader is a billionaire and entrepreneur but articulates his views and policies in a strident style. It has attracted a lot of attention and indeed support from younger and more educated Thai people, in particular. Future Forward strikes a more challenging tone to the junta than even the Pheu Thai party, which still retains strong support among Thailand’s working class and rural voters particularly in the north.

Pheu Thai and the Democrats were always critical of the Thai Constitution passed in 2016

At the seminar this week, figures from all three parties laid in to the new constitution. This marks a change in tactics, although in May this year, Pheu Thai joined with Future Forward and the smaller Chartthaipattana Party in calling for a review of the  2017 constitution. Both Pheu Thai and the Democrat party had expressed opposition to the charter in 2016. Over two years ago, the former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said: ‘The constitution is supposed to recognise people’s rights, create a balance of power, and find a solution for the country. I don’t see any of that in this (at the time draft) constitution.’ She was joined by her former political foe, Democrat party leader  Abhisit Vejjajiva, her predecessor as Prime Minister who said that he would personally vote to reject that new constitution, at the time, saying that  ‘the sustainable way of running the country should be democratic.’ Human Rights groups also campaigned against the law. These included Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch in Thailand, who said that the legal framework denied Thai voters an ‘informed choice.’ However the charter was approved with an impressive 61% vote with a voter turnout at an acceptable 59% on the 7th August 2016.

Previously, opposition groups had been focused on urging the government to speed up promises to lift political restrictions and allow open campaigning for the election. The staunch criticism of the new constitution is worrisome for the junta and perhaps for future political stability, which it has vowed to uphold.

New Constitution transposes powerful junta powers into the new political era in Thailand

Much of the criticism has been focused on the extraordinary powers which the current military junta maintains in Thailand under interim arrangements carried into the new provisions. Section 44, although used very sparingly, allows the government to make sweeping orders which can bypass judicial oversight. Such an order was made last week to allow Thailand’s election commission to carry out a redrawing of election constituencies to a government imposed deadline and guaranteed impunity to those working on the initiative. The new constitution allows for a continued role for the military junta and Section 44 has been transposed into the new Constitution as Section 265.

The parties engaged in the seminar also raised concerns about the rigidity of the the new charter which was  designed deliberately to be so. To amend the new constitution, it would require a determined government and concerted parliamentary unity. The speakers at the seminar also identified Section 279 of the new constitution as a key target. This allows for existing and past orders of the junta or the Thai government since the 2014 to be treated as law. Amendments or changes would require an act of Parliament or law.

Opposition political parties placing bets on a huge landslide vote against the junta by the public

At the seminar, Mr. Pokin Polakul of Pheu Thai, pointed out that any hope of changing the 2017 Constitution rested in achieving a decisive and overwhelming victory in next year’s election. This will be a difficult task. However, there is a growing body of opinion in Thailand swinging back towards Pheu Thai, the former ruling party and a range of new parties. There has also been a surge for the new Future Forward Party.

The opposition parties are looking to the recent grassroots movement which overthrew the last Malaysian government as inspiration. However, there is also a new political force on the other side of the divide. It is a new party which supports not only the present government and junta, but also appears to support the candidacy of existing Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-ocha for Prime Minister.

Some political and public support in Thailand for PM Prayut Chan-ocha as a national leader

The Phalang Pracharat Party is now up and running and has been joined by a range of government ministers including some that have worked with Thaksin Shinawatra’s successful governments up to the 2006 coup. The party is registering over 20% in opinion polls and it will be joined by other smaller parties who will support Prayut as Prime Minister, if he does decide put himself forward. He has shown a decided interest in doing so. Sometimes irascible and abrupt with the Thai press, his particular style has left many in Thailand enamored with his sense of duty and nationalism. His support comes from across the political spectrum. While he has recently been overtaken by Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan of Pheu Thai as favorite among the public, it has to be said that even among those who oppose the junta, there is some respect for him.

Opposition plan parliamentary campaign to challenge new constitution and its provisions

With the junta or Prayut guaranteed the support of 250 votes from the upper house on the election of Prime Minister, he requires parties supporting his candidacy to achieve 126 seats in the lower house to be elected Prime Minister. However the lower house will be responsible for enacting legislation and if the opposition parties come to unite, they may dominate it. This depends on a near landslide election result which would also give them a moral authority. Then they can focus on a campaign to curb the government or reverse the 2017 constitution. However this is still problematic given all the cards still in the junta’s hands. It must also be remembered that the charter was decisively approved by the Thai public in a referendum.

Speakers at the conference warned that any moves by opposition parties must focus on measures that increase transparency and fight corruption. This is, in fact, a key objective of the new constitution itself. One speaker warned that an impression must not be given that politicians are trying to make the laws more amenable to corrupt activities.

Future Forward Party setting a more progressive, radical and confrontational agenda

The seminar was focused on finding ways to roll make the existing constitution, which successfully incorporates the aftermath of the 2014 coup into law and justifies it. This was the approach adopted by the Future Forward Party which are particularly focused on opposing the junta. The Secretary General of that party Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, attacked orders and actions by the junta including those that ‘violated human rights.’ This is indeed the focus of the Future Forward party which seems to have a more progressive attitude. Mr. Saengkanokkul said that his party would make moves, from the outset, in the new parliament, to have a new constitutional redrafting process get underway. Any changes would have to be approved by the public. He said his party would have more detailed proposal on this later.

The Secretary General underlined the need for the support of the public in this campaign acknowledging the limited ability of MPs. He went further and said his party would be pushing for the power to allow the public to initiate criminal proceedings against those involved in the 2014 coup and even those involved in prior coups calling for no statute of limitations. He called for an end to the cycle of coups in Thailand.

New constitution and junta’s firewall to protect stability will be tested next year after poll

Already some academics are expressing concerns about the constitution. A political expert with Thailand prestigious Chulalongkorn University, Pornsan Liangboonlertchai, has been reported as saying that he believes a new crisis may erupt after the next government comes to power. He has accepted that the charter is designed in such a way that it will be very difficult to change. He’s suggesting that another cycle of political turmoil may be opening up.

2019 will see Thailand face a challenging political test 

However, this time it may just be different. The junta, since 2014 has been erecting a firewall to help protect Thailand from political instability and the negative impact of such disruptions. There is a body of opinion in Thailand that has welcomed the stability of the last four years, even with curtailed democratic rights. There are also many who see the last four years as four lost years, when democracy has been curtailed and see real democracy as a sine qua non. On the other hand, there is a new emerging generation of young progressive voters, as represented by the Future Forward Party, who are intent on a progressive agenda for Thailand to which the current edifice is an affront. The new constitution sees the junta and the military in Thailand still firmly entrenched in the political process. This is a key difference from the past and may be the ultimate key to stopping the cycle, though not in the way that progressive, democratic reformers would like. It may also have simply upped the ante, meaning that any future political breakdown will be more serious.

Performance of Phalang Pracharat Party in poll critical

The key things to watch when the election goes ahead is how well will the new Phalang Pracharat Party and others who may support the junta, perform in the poll. We must also keep an eye on economic conditions and worldwide trends, not least the current uprising in France and throughout Europe against globalist policies which ignore normal democratic channels. The outcome of such movements, including Brexit which tend to emphasise a more nationalist policy stance by western governments, may also encourage support for the Thai government among the Thai public who are often very conscious of worldwide opinion and trends. The economy and money in people’s pockets is always also going to be a key factor with many in Thailand remembering the  damage inflicted from 2012 to 2014. It could well be the resumption of a democratically elected body and a process of democratic government may avoid a problem offering Thailand its own ‘unique’ form of democracy. The election results will tell us part of that story. 2019 is going to be decisive year.