What next after the Thai elections?

  • Politics
  • 8 minute read
  • 10 April 2019

Since 2005 Thai politics has been stuck in a colour-coded conflict between the "red-shirts" - mainly rural supporters of the now-exiled billionaire and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - and the "yellow-shirts" - often characterised as monarchist and linked to the Bangkok elite. A destabilising cycle has seen governments linked to Thaksin win democratic mandates but be brought down by coups only to emerge again victorious at the next set of elections.

The general election of 24 March offered an opportunity to break this cycle, with the participation of some new players not so obviously affiliated to the old factions. Unfortunately, though, perceived irregularities, an electoral system and constitution slanted in favour of the military junta, and delays in announcing the results, have only increased political instability in Thailand rather than providing clarity for both Thais and foreign investors.

Over two weeks after the election the nominally independent Election Commission (EC) has failed to provide final results amid allegations of voting irregularities; the delayed and inconclusive results are seen by many commentators as a deliberate move to benefit the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat party. The official results will only be released on 9 May and a lot can still happen before then, as intense horse-trading occurs among both pro- and anti-junta political parties fighting to form a coalition government.

Deciphering the complex electoral system

Under its five-year rule, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO, the junta) led by its leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has implemented a new and convoluted electoral system aimed at undermining large rival political parties, particularly the pro-Shinawatra Puea Thai party, and benefitting smaller and medium-sized parties, particularly Phalang Pracharat.

The election was for the 500-seat lower House of Representatives, but the unofficial results so far only cover the 350 “constituency seats”. An additional 150 "party list" seats will be allocated under a complex formula, which is still being disputed. Meanwhile, the NCPO itself appoints 250 members of the upper house Senate. To nominate a prime minister, a party requires at least 25 seats in the lower house and 376 votes out of 750 seats (of combined houses) in parliament. As such, the NCPO-appointed senate will give the pro-military parties a significant advantage and will likely return Prayuth to the prime ministerial post.

… And the result?

While the EC delayed releasing the full results on 28 March it released unofficial results and the results of the popular vote: Phalang Pracharat led the latter with 8.4m votes, followed by 7.9m votes for Puea Thai.

Based on the unofficial results from 350 constituency seats, the top five parties are:

• Puea Thai: 137 MP seats The party is linked to Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, whose governments were both toppled by coups in 2006 and 2014 respectively. While Puea Thai is expected to dominate the elections, its performance falls short of a widely-forecasted 180 to 190 seats; in addition, it is unlikely to gain more party-list seats due to the seat “cap” for parties with large numbers of constituency seats. The results were complicated by the Constitutional Court’s dissolution on 7 March of Puea Thai’s ally, the Thai Raksa Chart party, on grounds that it had violated election law by committing a hostile act against the monarchy in nominating the King’s sister Princess Uboratana as its prime ministerial candidate.

• Phalang Pracharat: 97 MP seats The pro-junta party defied widespread expectations of a lacklustre performance and secured the second-highest number of constituency seats. Its unexpectedly strong showing led to widespread suspicions that voting irregularities had helped the party. Phalang Pracharat will also undoubtedly be eligible for more party-list MP seats, likely pushing its total seat number to around 110 while Puea Thai will retain its 137 seats. This will strengthen the junta’s attempt to control the government and Prayuth’s prime ministerial prospects.

• Bhumjaithai: 39 MP seats Although the party led by construction tycoon Anutin Charnvirakul was always predicted to be a kingmaker, it surpassed expectations to secure third place in the elections on the back of Anutin’s unorthodox campaign pledges to legalize marijuana and ride-hailing, and to institute a four-day work week. Both Puea Thai and Phalang Pracharat have approached Bhumjaithai to join the respective anti- and pro-military coalitions, but Anutin has not yet picked a side.

• Democrat Party: 33 MP seats One of the biggest surprises in the elections was the poor showing of the oldest and established Democrat Party, which is the centre of the anti-Shinawatra establishment; it was initially forecast by both political sides to hold the balance of power. The poor results prompted its leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign within five hours of the polls closing and led to a crisis within the party between those who wish to join the Phalang Pracharat coalition and some who prefer being an independent opposition.

• Future Forward Party: 30 MP seats Many – including the junta – have been wary of (and underestimated) this new party. Future Forward’s spectacular election debut was attributed to millennial and jaded voters attracted to its youthful, reformist and anti-junta leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (a scion of the Thai Summit auto-parts group). Since its strong debut, Thanathorn has (not unexpectedly) faced a string of legal complaints filed by the NCPO. The latest three charges – including sedition – brought on 6 April, date back to 2015 and could see Thanathorn tried in a military court and face up to nine years in prison if found guilty. Electoral laws also stipulate electoral disqualification for criminal convictions.

What to expect from now till May

Intense horse-trading and coalition-making efforts are underway and will continue in the coming weeks. Nonetheless, Puea Thai wasted no time in announcing on 27 March a seven-party “pro-democracy” (and anti-junta) coalition made up of the following parties: Puea Thai, Future Forward Party, Thai Liberal, Prachachart, Puea Chart and Thai People Power and New Economics Party.

Both Phalang Pracharat and Puea Thai have claimed victory and insisted on their right to form the government. Phalang Pracharat continues to reiterate it will not rush to form a coalition, but has insisted that it should form the government, given that it won the popular vote with 8.4m votes. The Action Coalition for Thailand led by the anti-Thaksin Suthep Thaugsuban will be Phalang Pracharat’s first ally in a pro-junta coalition.

The EC’s full unofficial election results released on 28 March will not be final. The commission – as of 5 April – ordered vote recounts in some constituencies and is investigating nearly 300 complaints against 66 constituency-seat winners. Some disqualifications are inevitable – almost certainly affecting mainly candidates from the Future Forward Party and Puea Thai – and will likely alter the final poll result.

A victory by either pro- or anti-junta coalition can only be confirmed on 9 May, if the results even hold: the much-criticised EC is now facing significant public pressure, given the growing calls and a 9 April petition by activist groups to annul the 24 March poll and for the impeachment of seven members of the EC for mishandling the election. As such, many things can still happen between now and 9 May, not least because the EC will likely continue to delay the final result announcement, coupled with the upcoming King’s coronation on 4-6 May.

Business implications

The 24 March election have failed to provide greater political certainty or assurance for local Thais and foreign investors and this will likely continue in the coming weeks. While the EC’s efforts to shift the elections in favour of the junta are to be expected, blatant attempts to disregard or manipulate the election results will likely lead to severe political and security repercussions. This will exacerbate the concerns about a public backlash and further political instability that has been muted by the junta for the past five years. The peace under the NCPO since the May 2014 coup is becoming increasingly fragile and renewed street protests are increasingly likely. In the worst-case scenarios, calls for fresh elections or another military coup cannot be ruled out. Meanwhile, Prayuth on 10 April downplayed the idea of a national government (where all parties govern together without any opposition) – clearly an unfeasible proposal.

Even if the current election result is retained in May and Phalang Pracharat returns with Prayuth and other military leaders, the veneer of junta government will provide little legitimacy and will inevitably face public and parliamentary resistance. The most likely scenario is that Prayuth will retain his prime ministerial post but face parliamentary deadlock, with no side having an outright majority. In the unlikely event that any civilian government led by Puea Thai is elected, it will be weak and bound by the army-drafted constitution that has been put in place to guide the country for the next 20 years. Regardless of the incoming government, policymaking will likely stall, affecting local developments and foreign investment, especially because this time Prayuth will no longer be able to use the powerful clause in section 44 of the constitution (which previously gave him the absolute executive and legislative power) to push through policies easily, as has been the case under the junta regime.

Thailand’s growth rates have been hovering around the 3-4 percent mark over the last few years, significantly below what could be achieved. The elections offered an opportunity to relaunch the economy but foreign investors will be reluctant to increase their commitments to Thailand given the lack of clarity that has emerged from these results.