With parliamentary elections set for Feb 24, Thailand will return to electoral politics four years after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was overthrown in a military coup. This is no ordinary moment for a nation that has seen 19 coup attempts, one every four years on average, since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. And indeed this will not be an ordinary election. A new Constitution that took effect last year has changed the ground rules. New provisions specifically ensure that populist politics is kept at bay and that two traditional pillars of power remain important: the military retains a say in setting a direction for the country even after elections; and the King's influence remains undiminished.
This is perhaps a unique political innovation at a time when populism is surging across the world. If all goes well, Thailand should see a smooth political transition and policy continuity that will provide the stability needed for peace, order and prosperity. Indications are that the pro-Thaksin political parties - which won every election since the 1997 Asian financial crisis - will return to stake a claim to form a new government next year. If so, they will operate under constraints that preclude the possibility of the Thaksin-era populist economic policies that shook the Bangkok elite, and culminated in street protests that led to the downfall of Thaksin Shinawatra and subsequently his sister Yingluck. A new Thai government will be obliged to follow a 20-year framework of broad economic and social goals already laid down by the junta.