Surging GDP could boost likelihood of Thai polls

Economic growth could sway Thai junta to hold polls as scheduled as pressure mounts

A surprise surge in Thailand's economic growth could sway the country's military government to stick to a plan for fresh elections early next year.

Rebounding agricultural output and more traditional drivers such as exports and tourism helped propel gross domestic product growth to a five-year high of 4.8 per cent last quarter.

Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said soon afterwards that political stability under the military administration had bolstered the economy.

Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said the positive economic numbers ought to encourage the junta to hold the elections as soon as possible.

"Why postpone any longer? They should be able to exploit and capitalise on this, but they can't," said Dr Thitinan.

"They are stuck in a catch-22 - they delay calling an election because they don't think they can win, but the longer they delay, the less chance they have of winning."

Former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power in Thailand in May 2014 after a period of political unrest, pledging to restore stability before bringing back representative government. The current stretch of military rule is one of the longest since the 1970s.

CATCH-22 SITUATION

Why postpone any longer? They should be able to exploit and capitalise on this, but they can't... They are stuck in a catch-22 - they delay calling an election because they don't think they can win, but the longer they delay, the less chance they have of winning.

DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Thai lawmakers expect the government to hold elections early next year, but the timeline has already been pushed back repeatedly. Last October, Mr Prayut said the elections would be held by November this year.

Small protests held in Bangkok on Tuesday to mark four years of military rule and call for elections to be held this year were blocked by police, who detained several activist leaders.

The growth figures were positive, said Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee at his office in Bangkok on Thursday.

"This is a good sign that our country has recovered from the social unrest a few years ago," Dr Suvit said. "We still need fundamental change, so reforms have to continue. Thailand itself has a lot of endowment from the gods. What we need is the management - the right policies and management that can be applied for a certain period of time."

Mr Rahul Bajoria, a senior economist at Barclays Bank in Singapore, said a production jump in the agriculture sector was the primary cause of the growth acceleration in the last quarter, adding that GDP will probably climb more than 4 per cent this year.

"The drivers of expansion are becoming broader, with private consumption gradually improving and investments likely gathering pace," said Mr Bajoria. "Merchandise exports and tourism-related revenues will remain important growth drivers."

The government is already trumping this as a success, Dr Michael Montesano, senior counsellor at Vriens & Partners and a visiting research fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said.

"One of the big stories since the 2014 election is that a lot of those people the junta would need to court for votes when an election takes place don't seem to have prioritised pocket book issues as much as in the past," said Dr Montesano.

"Instead, security and stability seem to be counting for more."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2018, with the headline 'Surging GDP could boost likelihood of Thai polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe