The Thai military junta this week announced that the country’s long-awaited elections will be held on February 24, 2019 – but while the government has lifted a ban on political activity, political parties and analysts say the measures are not enough to ensure the process will be democratic.
“Partially relaxing control over political parties is not enough to guarantee that elections will be free and fair,” said Sunai Pasuk, a Thailand-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Thailand has been run by a military government since the army seized power in a coup d’etat in May 2014. The government has been promising elections since it took power, but this is the first time it has announced an official date.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha last Tuesday lifted restrictions including a controversial ban on political gatherings of five or more people as well as a rule preventing political parties from convening meetings without prior approval, holding political activities, or setting up party branches around the country.
“This is a period of change that it is important for the country. People should contribute to choose the political parties,” his order said. “The people and political parties will be able to take part in political activities during this period leading up to the election in accordance with the constitution.”
However, many restrictions on freedom of speech will remain during the run-up to the polls, and people could be prosecuted under sedition, computer-related crime, and lese majeste laws if they are not lifted, Sunai said.
“Everyone will [still] be expected to think and act in the same direction that the junta wants them to do,” he said. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 100 pro-democracy activists have been prosecuted since the beginning of 2018 under those laws “for peaceful expression of their views”.
These include several key politicians, including the leader of the brand-new Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, or top members of the main opposition party, Pheu Thai.
Political parties are also confused about what they are allowed to do under the new order. The government says they are now free to campaign for votes, but some politicians worry of being prosecuted if they launch their campaigns before the royal decree officially calling for the February 24 election is published on January 2.
“When this law is [published], then we can do anything we want for the elections. Now, we cannot”, said Chusak Sirinil, legal adviser for Pheu Thai. According to Chusak, there are “double standards”, and “the government can do whatever they want” to campaign, referring to a recent policy that saw it give 500 baht (US$15) to low-income people as a New Year’s gift.
Pheu Thai is now being investigated by the Election Commission regarding its ties to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, toppled in a coup in 2006, and could be dissolved if found guilty. Every party aligned with the ousted leader has won office since Thaksin became prime minister in 2001.
Some of the potential candidates, including Chusak, will have to campaign with cases pending against them. Rangsiman Rome, a student activist who recently joined the Future Forward party, has eight cases against him, four of them in military courts, most of them for breaching the ban on political activities.
“It is still hard for me. Even if I campaign maybe tomorrow … and they cannot use the law [banning political gatherings] against me any more, they can use the past cases. So maybe I don’t have more freedom,” he said. The former activist also worries that, if found guilty, he would be immediately invalidated as a candidate.
Candidates will only be able to register their applications between January 14 and 18.
Some of the new parties are also facing problems with the registration process. The Commoner’s Party, for instance, has been trying to meet all the legal requirements since it was founded in March, when the junta allowed new political organisations to be formed. However, they have yet to receive confirmation from the Election Commission.
“We fear that the Election Commission will reject our registration,” said Chumaporn Taengkliang, deputy leader of the Commoner’s Party, which wants to promote policies benefiting the poor.
The junta last year passed a law requiring political parties to have at least 1 million baht (US$30,475) as initial capital, while each founder has to contribute at least 1,000 baht. In addition, each party is required to recruit at least 5,000 paying members during its first year and add at least another 5,000 within the first five years. Even if the party is approved, this process will hamper their campaigning prospects, Chumaporn said: “We cannot run any campaign until the Election Commission approves our registration.”
Analysts also warn that polls may not decide who forms the new government or its policies. The 2017 Constitution, drafted by the junta and approved via a referendum in 2016, establishes a five-year transitional period after the election when the senate, indirectly nominated by the military, will be key in choosing the new government. It also allows a non-MP to become the prime minister, leaving the door open for current Prime Minister Prayuth to renew his job without running in the elections.
“With this new constitution they have attempted to create something that they can predict and something that they can keep checks on,” said Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai military and politics at Thailand’s Naresuan University. The junta has also locked in the country’s economic policy for the next two decades in its so-called 20-year development plan, which will be binding for any future government.
“It looks like democracy, it acts like democracy, but it is not democracy,” Chambers said.
This has led to disillusionment among some voters. “I gave up with the elections already because I think there is no hope. Politicians buy votes from people, who don’t care about politics or don’t understand them,” said Phumpan Siripakdee, 37, who voted in the 2011 elections that brought Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck, to power. “I know that we should not give up but my vote doesn’t count,” said Phumpan, who works as a manager at a local television station. “I feel like they are cheating and I don’t want to play that game”.