- Thailand in 2019:The Year of Living Unpredictably
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What happened in Thailand throughout 2019 was different from anything that had gone before in contemporary Thai politics. Prior to the March general election there were many questions. Was the election going to happen, and, if it was, what were the results going to be? The process leading up to the election was also intriguing. On the one hand, there were many new political parties. On the other hand, politicians faced many challenges and constraints caused by the promilitary constitution introduced in 2017.
The result of the election was even more startling. It saw the decline of the urban middle-class Democrats, the oldest party in Thailand, as well as the rural mass-based Pheu Thai, the latest incarnation of Thaksin-inspired parties, which had won every election this century. The election also witnessed the emergence of the "new kids in town": Future Forward and Palang Pracharat. The latter was a pro-military party that recruited from the ranks of existing politicians with existing patronage networks. Palang Pracharat nominated General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the leader of the 2014 coup and head of the junta, as its choice of prime minister. Even though Palang Pracharat was only the second-largest party in parliament, Prayut was still voted by a joint sitting of the House of Representatives and the military-appointed Senate to be the prime minister. Palang Pracharat also managed to form a coalition government of nineteen political parties to hold a slim parliamentary majority of 254 out of 500 seats, confronting an opposition bloc of seven political parties with 246 parliamentary seats. Given the economic downturn, strained relations with Western democracies, and the rise of a popular opposition in the form of Future Forward, the government was expected to [End Page 337] be vulnerable and short-lived. But, after more than half a year, the pro-junta government has successfully maintained its upper hand, taming its medium- and small-sized coalition partners and suppressing the opposition. There have so far been no robust challenges to the pro-military government.
Peculiar Pre-election Conditions
In the decade following the 1992 democratic transition, Thailand was considered one of the most democratic countries in Southeast Asia. The subsequent campaign for reform led to the 1997 constitution, one of the most democratic in Thai political history. After this came two overwhelming electoral victories of Thai Rak Thai ("Thai Love Thai"), a new party led by Thaksin Shinawatra that was popular among the rural poor. In 2006, democracy was temporarily terminated by a coup d'état. The military claimed that the coup was necessary to protect democracy from the abusive, populist and corrupt government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and to prevent the outbreak of violence stemming from the protracted conflict between the "Red Shirt" supporters of Thaksin and the anti-Thaksin "Yellow Shirt" movement led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). After the junta-appointed government stepped aside a year later, the conflict resumed. The People's Power Party, successor to the court-dissolved Thai Rak Thai, won the 2007 election under the leadership of Samak Sundaravej. Thaksin was then in self-imposed exile, while the anti-Thaksin movement, led by former politicians of the Democrat Party, re-emerged as the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). The confrontation between these forces continued from 2007 to 2014. Two prime ministers of the People's Power Party were dismissed by the courts, and later the party itself was dissolved. This then enabled the military to engineer a Democrat Party–led government in 2008, even though the Democrats had not won an election in two decades. Mass protests against the Democrat government in April and May 2010 were violently suppressed by the military, leading to around a hundred deaths. In 2011 the Democrats again lost a general election to the Pheu Thai Party led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck. The red-yellow conflict reached another peak in 2013 when the anti-Thaksin PDRC movement mobilized one of the biggest mass protests in Thai political history. However, instead of promoting democracy—like the...