By Mehmet Alemdar
The general elections to be held on 14 May 2023 in Thailand are of great importance for the “Asian Age”. Before commenting on the elections, it would be useful to briefly summarize the political system in Thailand.
Thailand is a unitary state governed by a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system. The 1932 Siamese Revolution transformed Siam (Thailand) from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy. As of the constitutional monarchy, a bicameral legislature, the National Assembly of Thailand, was established, consisting of the Senate of Thailand and the House of Representatives of Thailand.
Despite the transition to a constitutional monarchy, the Royal Thai Army continued to be an important actor in Thai political life. For this reason, the country has experienced many military coup attempts. If we consider the Siamese Revolution in 1932 as a coup too, there have been 19 coup attempts in Thailand from 1932 to 2014 and 13 of them were successful.
Western influence in Thailand and the post-2000 Thaksin Shinawatra era
Although Thailand boasts of being the only country in Southeast Asia without colonial experience, the Kingdom of Siam suffered significant territorial losses in the east, north and south and signed treaties on unequal terms with the British and French colonial powers that dominated the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This is why the Thai Marxist Udom Sisuwan, in his book “Thailand: A Semi-colony” written in 1950, defined Thailand as a semi-feudal and semi-colonial state based on these relations of dependency.
After 1945, the US influence over Thailand increased and peaked during the Vietnam War. The military coups during the Cold War were closely linked to the international balances and dynamics of the period. Thailand, during the Cold War, had mainly and anti-communist position and the military coups in the country were aimed at curbing any possible rise of communism. In the post-Cold War international environment, the threat of communism no longer existed. The US became the sole global hegemonic power. The neoliberal wave of globalisation that spread all over the world in the 1990s began to target the nation states in the Third World. It was argued that states should downsize and take their hands off the economy.
In 2001, during the unipolar world order, capitalist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister. Shinawatra was backed by farmers who had suffered after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, and received a great deal of support from rural areas of the country, despite his government program was in line with the global neo-liberal economic system. Shinawatra filled the void left by the leftist movements that had lost influence after the 1990s and founded the Thai Rak Thai Party in 1998.
Born in Chiang Mai province in the north of Thailand, Shinawatra began pragmatically to appeal to the peasants and workers of rural Thailand. Shinawatra’s appeal to the poor and the oppressed was not an act of principle. With the support of the oppressed in the north, east and interior parts of the country, Shinawatra emerged as the first party in the 2001 elections with nearly 40 per cent of the vote.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ruled Thailand from 2001 to 2006 and during his rule Thailand supported the US invasion of Iraq. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ruled Thailand from 2001 to 2006 and during his rule Thailand supported the US invasion of Iraq. Even 2 Thai soldiers lost their lives during the invasion of Iraq. The US began to regard Thailand as an important ally outside NATO. Thailand’s oil and gas conglomerate PTT was privatised during Shinawatra’s rule. The Shinawatra government tried to implement the US-Thailand free trade agreement without parliamentary approval.
The neo-liberal Shinawatra administration “added some populism” and “some social democracy” to its domestic policies. Under him, Thailand repaid the IMF loans it had received after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the Thai economy began to revive. Shinawatra introduced the “30 Baht Healthcare System” for those not covered by the two state-sponsored insurance programs. Patients would pay 30 Baht for visiting the hospital when they had a minor or major health problem. This reform threw dust in yes of the oppressed people, but it did not fundamentally change the existing problems of inadequate public hospitals and shortage of health personnel. Shinawatra’s neo-liberal program of social welfare was later named “Thaksinomics”.
Thaksinomics led to a relative decline in poverty and improved access to healthcare. Shinawatra’s policies brought him a landslide victory in the 2005 elections, with the Thai Rak Thai Party winning 60 percent of the vote in the country in all except the south. Not only rural farmers but also urban workers, business people and academics supported Shinawatra. Thaksin Shinawatra has become one of the most powerful actors in the country.
Military coups of 2006 and 2014 and the end of Shinawatra
On September 19, 2006, while Thaksin Shinawatra was in the US for a United Nations meeting, the Thai army once again took the stage and seized power. According to the military, government corruption, interference in state institutions, violations of the country’s “lèse majesté” law, and the division of society were among the reasons for the coup. However these were only the reasons on the surface. After the coup, the Thai Rak Thai Party and its members were banned from politics.
In the period after 2006, the chaotic atmosphere in Thailand’s led to demonstrations. In 2005, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, also known as the Yellow Shirts, a coalition of protesters against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, was established. In 2006 Shinawatra’s supporters formed the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship and began to wear Red Shirts to distinguish themselves from the Yellow Shirts. The Red Shirts were made up mostly of rural and urban poor, but Shinawatra, the movement’s unofficial leader, represented a program of liberalism close to the center-left.
In the 2007 general elections, the People’s Power Party, seen as a successor to the Thai Rak Thai Party, came to power. In response, the Constitutional Court annulled the prime ministership of Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat. When Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected Thailand’s new prime minister in a special vote in the House of Representatives on December 17, 2008, the Red Shirts continued their protests. In 2009 and 2010, the country witnessed clashes between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts, resulting in moderate to large-scale unrest in the country. The Red Shirts hailed the Western-backed Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in their publications. Eventually the Red Shirts put pressure on the government with demonstrations in 2010 and general elections were organized in 2011.
Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin Shinawatra and leader of the Pheu Thai Party, won the 2011 elections with 47 percent of the vote and came to power alone. Yingluck’s political life did not last long and the Constitutional Court dismissed her on May 7, 2014. Shortly afterwards General Prayut Chan-o-cha, now prime minister, seized power on May 22, 2014. From 2014 to 2019, the country was ruled by the National Council for Peace and Order, headed by Prayut Chan-o-cha. The constitution drafted by the military during this period was accepted by 61 percent of the people and came into force in 2017.
Under the constitution, a person can become prime minister only if she or he receives 376 majority votes in Thailand’s 500-seat House of Representatives and 250-seat Senate. Since the National Council elects the members of the Senate for Peace and Order, Prayut Chan-o-cha was able to become prime minister after the general elections in 2019 with the votes of the Senate despite gaining 116 seats in the House of Representatives. In contrast, the Pheu Thai Party won 136 seats in the House of Representatives but had no say in the prime ministerial election. The West interprets the situation as the military’s continued influence in the government and criticizes Thailand’s electoral system as undemocratic.
The May 14 general elections and “another” Shinawatra
In the May 14 elections, six party leaders stand out in Thailand: Paethongtarn Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party, Pita Limjaroenrat of the Move Forward Party, Prawit Wongsuwan of the Palang Pracharat Party, Anutin Charnvirakul of the Bhumjaithai Party, Jurin Laksanawisit of the Democratic Party and Prayut Chan-o-cha of the United Thai Nation Party.
Ahead of the May 14 general election in Thailand polls suggest that the Pheu Thai Party is likely to become the first party in the House of Representatives with 35-50 percent of the vote. The Pheu Thai Party is a liberal party founded by Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, and is the successor of the Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power parties which pursued policies in line with the Western world in foreign policy, and it is led by Paethongtarn Shinawatra, the 36 year old daughter of Thaksin Shinawatra.
The party most likely to come second in the elections is the liberal Move Forward Party. This party is the successor of the Soros-backed Future Forward Party, which was dissolved by Thailand’s Constitutional Court on February 21, 2020 for violating election laws. While Thailand considers it in its national interest to remain neutral on the Russia-Ukraine War, Pita Limjaroenrat has taken a more explicit stance in favor of Ukraine, stating that Russia should immediately withdraw its troops from Ukraine.
It is unlikely that the other four conservative parties will form a majority in the House of Representatives in the elections. However, given the support for Prayut Chan-o-cha in the Senate, a minority government might be formed with Prayut as prime minister. The opposition needs to win 376 seats in the House of Representatives in order to come to power despite the Senate.
The geopolitical position and future of the opposition
The coups of 2006 and 2014 have different internal and external dynamics than the coups of the Cold War era. They should be seen in the context of the traditionally nationalist Thai military’s reaction to defend the Thai national state against globalization, as both coups took place at a time when the structure of the international system was shifting from unipolarity to multipolarity.
After the 2000s, the economic and political influence of the US on Thailand has gradually declined with the rise of China. The rapidly advancing Belt and Road railway projects in Thailand, China’s growing economic weight in the Thai market, and its contribution to Thai tourism are all contributing to the strengthening of bilateral relations between China and Thailand. The Bank of Thailand is in talks with the People’s Bank of China to support the Yuan-Baht agreement in trade against the dollar. This process provides important contributions to Thailand whose economy is based on tourism and agriculture. Transport projects pave the way for Thai farmers to export their products more cheaply.
Due to the development of trade, economic and cultural relations with China, Thailand is now a matter of concern for the West, especially for the US. Even Thailand’s slightly independent foreign policy is an obstacle to the US policy of containing China in Southeast Asia. In order to contain China in Southeast Asia, the US wants a government aligned with Western interests, which is expected to deteriorate Thai-Chinese relations. However, Thailand’s internal and external dynamics no longer favors such relations of dependence.
Without doubt, Thailand has deficiencies in terms of democracy and economic inequality. Obstacles to the national will through military coups is a problem that needs to be addressed. All these problems cannot be solved by Western interference in Thailand’s internal affairs. The Thai people’s demand for democracy continues to be exploited by imperialists. As in many Third World countries imperialism, through political parties under its control, bonds the just demands of the Thai people for democracy and economic inequality with its own neoliberal hegemony strategy and thus defuses them. The future of the Thai people must be decided by the Thai people themselves. For this, the opposition parties must first and foremost take a stand for independence and statism.