Although the military-crafted constitution puts pro-democratic forces at a disadvantage, the pro-military parties still have a long way ahead to form the new government.
On March 24, Thailand held its first election after the 2014 military coup, but the electoral commission postponed the results until May 9, leaving doubts and uncertainty across the country.
The commission initially said the pro-military Palang Pracharat (People's State Power Party) had won at least 143 parliamentary seats, passing the game-changing mark of 126 seats, in a 500-member house, but as the opposition and international observers cried foul, they delayed the results.
In 2017, three years after the coup, the military crafted and implemented a new constitution, which breaks the 750-member parliament into two halves: a lower house or the House of Representatives with 500 seats and the upper house (the Senate) with 250 seats. To govern the country, the constitution says the prime minister must have a majority support, which means securing the approval of half of the parliamentarians from both houses, plus one.
The constitution however favours the military-backed parties because the entire Senate is directly appointed by the military, giving them a 250-member edge over the opposition parties.
Thailand is one of South Asia’s troubled democracies, where elected governments have been toppled by military juntas on several occasions since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
All eyes were on this election because Thais had a chance to break away from the old political dichotomy, which is heavily influenced by pro-military elites, and establish a new political order led by democratic forces.
In 2014, the junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is currently Thailand's prime minister and the leader of the Palang Pracharat (PPRP) party, ousted the country’s democratically-elected government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the then-leader of Pheu Thai (For Thais Party). The ousted party came second in March 24 polls after the electoral commission's initial projections suggested that PPRP was leading in the popular vote.
“Pueu Thai seems to have the widest support among people, though Palang Pracharat will probably remain in control,” Patinya Ambuel, a Thai-American political analyst and writer, told TRT World. “At the moment, it seems that Prayuth will remain prime minister, but it will be a very unstable government with a strong and uncompromising opposition.”
The Thai military establishment maintained its hold on the country's politics after the Prayuth-led coup seized power, but pro-democratic forces have a majority in the House of Representatives. As a result, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha may soon find himself politically cornered.
While the constitution heavily favours military-backed forces, it still has clauses that give weight to a lower house majority to pass any legislation and particularly, the country’s budget. As a result, Prayuth will need significant support from the parliamentarians who are not bound to follow the army's diktats.
What will happen next?
The unofficial results of elections show that the PPRP has already secured enough seats to form a government, gaining more than 140 seats. But the opposition forces reject the results, citing irregularities and voter fraud.
The electoral commission also indicated that there had been several errors in terms of gathering polling data. The ambiguous picture emerging from the poll results could embolden the opposition against the military-backed establishment.
Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate, said the party will legally challenge the elections results.
“These affect the nation’s credibility and the people’s trust,” Sudarat said.
Independent observers also criticise the elections, calling them “deeply flawed.”
Thai-American political expert Ambuel echoes the opposition's view on the credibility of the elections.
“The election was evidently rigged, but at the same time was a very educational process for the Thai people as a whole. The military influence and corruptive power is ever more evident to people, especially younger voter, who feel no allegiance to the older and have seen only conflict since they were born,” Ambuel said.
The Thaksin effect
The most powerful opposition to the military-backed government comes from Pheu Thai, a party which is under the strong influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a revolutionary politician, who became the country’s first democratically-elected prime minister in 2001 and was able to finish a full term without any intervention.
But it did not last long as a military junta topped his government in 2006, even though he was reelected in 2005 with overwhelming support. Thaksin was charged with corruption, but he moved to Hong Kong where he lives in self-imposed exile.
“Corruption under Thaksin has been the number one scapegoat for the military and the elite, but of course corruption predated Thaksin and is now as bad as ever under the military,” Ambuel said.
Despite corruption allegations and choosing life in exile, Thaksin left a strong and apparently indelible imprint on Thai politicsby challenging the military’s authority with people-friendly policies that mostly favoured rural areas.
Many pro-Thaksin parties have emerged even marking a strong electoral presence in Thaksin's absence.
The military however targeted pro-Thaksin parties on several occasions. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, who became prime minister in 2011, also became the target of Thailand’s military establishment. She was ousted by a military junta led by Prayuth in 2014.
“Thaksin modernised Thai politics. His was the first party that campaigned on policy then acted to deliver on that policy. That is the reason for his popularity in the rural areas. He also made real movement toward expanding opportunities for the grassroots and SMEs, which was a threat to the established order,” Ambuel said.
“So despite his many deficiencies and unintended consequences, corruption and political polarisation, he did bring an advancement to Thai democracy,” Ambuel observed.
But the latest elections, which Thaksin has labelled as “rigged” in his New York Times article, can create a political environment in which Thaksinism could lose its powerful effect on Thai politics.
Thaksinism will be “diminishing” despite his high popularity, according to Ambuel. Since 2001, this is the first time a pro-Thaksin party could not win the elections in a straightforward way.
Ambuel thinks that it is not Thaksin and his other followers but a new anti-military force, Anakot Mai (Future Forward Party), which surprisingly garnered more than five million votes in the 69 million-strong nation, finishing the elections as the third party, is better positioned “to realise a fuller democracy over time,” among other democratic forces.
Apparently, Anakot Mai was able to reach the country’s youth, defending democratic reforms. “They will certainly be influential in the future,” Ambuel predicted.
But the Democrat Party, which is one of the country’s oldest parties, was not able to make an inroads, winning much fewer seats than experts and pundits predicted.
According to Ambuel, one way or another Thailand needs to face its two main issues: military influence and the constitution.
“First, the need to eradicate military influence in Thai politics once and for all and put an end to the cycle of coups, and second to change the constitution, make the military more professional, and the institutions more democratic,” Ambuel observed.