Politics back in fashion in Thailand despite poll delays

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised to hold an election in November, but said last week the vote would take place "no later" than Feb 2019.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised to hold an election in November, but said last week the vote would take place "no later" than Feb 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BAAN SALADIN (Thailand) (REUTERS) - Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha rowed a boat across a pond dotted with lotus leaves, planted some rice stalks in a field and turned to villagers who had come to meet him in Baan Saladin village in central Thailand.

Speaking of an oft-delayed general election, the 63-year-old Prayut, who led a 2014 coup that ousted the last elected government, simply said: "Elect a good person."

Prayut was in Nakhon Pathom province last month (Feb) not to campaign for an election, but to roll out his "Long-lasting Thainess" plan, which involves sending soldiers and social workers to meet with people across Thailand to listen to their problems.

But the "Thainess" undertaking is widely seen as the unofficial launch of Prayut's own campaign to stay on as prime minister. Prayut had promised to hold an election in November, but said last week the vote would take place "no later" than Feb 2019.

"Those in the government and the junta ... think that the situation in the country is still unsettled," said a government minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the series of election delays.

ANTI-JUNTA PROTESTS

In Bangkok, young, middle-class Thais, have led a series of anti-junta protests, including one on Feb 24 at Thammasat University - which Thai troops stormed in 1976, killing dozens of students in an earlier coup.

Than Rittiphan, a member of the New Democracy Movement, which has helped to organise the protests, said the movement is mainly aimed at holding a general election sooner.

The movement transcends the red-yellow divide in Thai politics and "has actually spread into a conflict between generations and values", he said.

The students say they are pushing for a Thai meritocracy to replace what they see as corruption and nepotism in the system.

The latest protests are too small to be a factor in any election timing, said Kan Yuenyong, a political analyst and executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank told Reuters.

"But they do increase public awareness about the vote. The underlying politics of Thailand is still about class - the upper, middle and the working class. People try to say that we've moved on from colour politics but we haven't," Kan said.

New King Maha Vajiralongkorn, however, has yet to set a date for his official coronation and some analysts think an election would not be held before then.

The king, who spends much of his time in Germany, has moved quickly to consolidate power since taking the throne in Dec 2016 following the death of his father, the much beloved Bhumibol Adulyadej.

He made changes to the Privy Council, which advises the monarchy, and has made appointments himself, taking some of the control away from the military. He made his own amendments to the military-drafted constitution and gained control of the Crown Property Bureau, which runs the more than US$30 billion (S$39.5 billion) assets of the monarchy.

RED-YELLOW DIVIDE

The junta's four-year moratorium on politics was aimed at stamping out the red-yellow divide in Thai politics.

The "yellow shirts" tended to support the Democrat Party, popular with middle-class voters with strong support in Bangkok and the Muslim-dominated south.

The "red shirt" movement of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck, appealed to poorer voters, particularly in the populous northeast. It has won every election in Thailand over the past two decades.

Yingluck herself was overthrown by Prayut in the 2014 coup and last year (2017) fled Thailand before the verdict in a corruption trial - eliminating a charismatic party figurehead who might also have rallied opposition to Prayut.

Although he cannot stand for election, the constitution offers a way for Prayut to continue serving as prime minister.

According to the constitution, both houses of parliament can consider an alternative candidate as prime minister if the 500-member lower house fails to approve a nominee for the post.

The candidate would need majority support from both houses - all 250 senators in the upper house are appointed by the junta.

Outside the legislature, Prayut appears to have some support already.

Representatives of 114 political groups met last month with the election panel, with many pledging support for Prayut as prime minister.

The two main parties, however, the Democrat Party and the Thaksin-allied Puea Thai Party, have openly criticised Prayut's election postponements and will field their own candidates for the prime minister job.

"The military wants to ensure that it can convince political parties to support it and that's why it needs more time," said a senior government aide, referring to the repeated postponements of the election.

Thaksin and his sister Yingluck held meetings in Hong Kong and Singapore last month with members of his party, prompting some to comment that he was readying Puea Thai for an election.