Thailand voted on March 24, apparently towards democracy, but it was completely framed by the military rulers. The Thai army has staged at least a dozen coups since 1932, and the latest one was in 2014. However, when the army sets out of the barracks and enters the political arena, it can do no good for people or for democracy.
One classic example in East Asia is that of Myanmar. The poor country experienced military rule for half a century (1962-2011). The 2015 General elections could be a milestone in Myanmar’s history as these were the first openly contested elections since 1990. But it was possibly far from the desired mark. Although Aung San Suu Kyi was constitutionally barred from presidency, it was a completely different game for her National League for Democracy (NLD) as well as for other political parties, and for the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In fact, the goalposts were very different.
According to the military-framed 2008 National Constitution of Myanmar, the parliament, called the Assembly of the Union or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, is made up of two houses. The upper house, known as House of Nationalities or Amyotha Hluttaw, has 224 seats, and the lower house, called House of Representatives or Pyithu Hluttaw, has 440 seats. And 25 per cent of the (i.e. 56 in the upper house and 110 in the lower house) are appointed by the military, while the remaining 75 per cent are open for voting. The same proportion of seats is appointed by the military in the Regional Assemblies and State Assemblies as well.
Thus, in the case of Myanmar, assuming that USDP would get the support of the military-appointed parliamentarians, they would need just one-third of the remaining seats to secure a majority while the requirement for any other party is to cross two-thirds of the voting seats. This is simple arithmetic.
Back to today’s Thailand. When the Thai military rulers scripted a constitution in 2017, it was inevitable that they would get inspiration from their neighbour country, and they became cautious too from the Burmese experience. The coup makers in 2014 had the excuse to end the decade-old political turmoil in Thailand, and to cripple the political movement loyal to ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They were supposedly on the great mission of fixing the country’s political system in a way that the army would not have to intervene again. However, they didn’t want to disturb the monarchy. And their leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, took the prime minister’s job. Now, after five years, General Prayuth is in no mood to go back to the military barrack – political power is so attractive.
The military-drafted constitution of Thailand divided parliament into two houses. The lower house has the provision of 500 elected representatives, while all the 250 members of the upper house, called the Senate, are military appointed. However, all 750 members combining the two houses would vote in parliament for the next prime minister, who would thus need support of 376 members.
Assuming that 250 Senators vote for General Prayuth, he’d need only 126 seats in the lower house, which is just above 25 per cent of the seats open for voting. On the other hand, any other party or alliance would need 376 out of these 500 seats open for voting, more than three-fourths. Maybe Thai military rulers learned from the Burmese experience that fixing onefourth seats is not enough for military rulers to grab power through the ballot, as Suu Kyi’s party in Myanmar could manage to get more than the required 67 per cent seats on their own. Thai rulers thus fixed more seats in their own favour, and hence escalated that requirement for the other political parties a bit to make it 75 per cent.
And General Prayuth, with his newly formed party, Palang Pracha Rath (PPRP) or the Power of the People’s State, could retain power as the prime minister for the next term, after engineering a new political system that aims to stifle the influence of big political parties not aligned with the military. However, Thailand is possibly heading towards a fragile coalition era in at least the next few decades, where the military will continue to dominate every functionality of the government through the 250-member appointed senate, and the newly created National Strategy Board which would ensure future administrations adhere to the military’s 20-year master plan for Thailand.
The bicameral Thai Parliament can also select a Prime Minister who is not one of its members or even a politician, provided the appointed Senate approves. Who knows if Thailand will become another Myanmar, where the government is apparently run by Suu Kyi’s NDL party, but the presence of the military is always felt.
Interestingly, in a nationwide referendum in 2016, 61 per cent of the Thai people endorsed such a constitution. However, did the Thai people do it with proper understanding of the guided democracy that was envisaged? Very few voters might have seen a copy of the draft constitution with 279 articles before going to the polling stations. And in the absence of proper debate on the opposing view, the voters only heard the drafters’ argument that it would address political corruption and help reform the country. Thus, it is clear that people endorse important socio-political issues in a referendum without understanding the consequences at all. This happened in Britain, and this happened in Thailand as well.
Some in the Western media prefer to think that Thailand is heading towards a semi-democracy or hybrid democracy. I disagree with them. Democracy is the institutionalisation of freedom, it is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Democracy can’t be established with a bayonet in one hand. So where Thailand is heading after its election is nowhere close to democracy. I can at most call it post-military rule, which with high probability is all set to dictate Thailand for at least a few more decades. Thai people are destined to struggle hard in order to resurrect the phoenix of democracy from the current situation.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)