Thailand’s long and winding return to democracy has been further delayed following the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) decision to change Section 2 of the MP election bill, with elections now expected to take place in early 2019.
The decision to push back elections has been widely criticised by the international community, human rights groups and Thailand’s leading political parties. Shortly after the 2014 coup, which brought General Prayut and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to power, the public were told that Thailand would return to democracy the following year.
Then, in February 2015, Prime Minister Prayut explained that the elections would instead be held in early in 2016. In 2016, he informed the United Nations General Assembly that democratic elections would be postponed until 2017. Another year passed and with it came another postponement.
While in Washington in 2017, Prayut assured the international community that elections would take place in 2018. That date has now been pushed back to early 2019, placing the General among the country’s longest serving Prime Ministers.
Thailand remains the world’s only nation to be under formal military rule and delays in returning the country to a civilian government were criticised by the EU Ambassador, Pirkka Tapiola , who called on the junta to uphold their pledge to hold elections this year, adding, “We understand that it is still possible to hold the elections by November 2018 and encourage all stakeholders to respect the previously announced road map for a return to democracy in Thailand, for the benefit of all its people.”
US embassy spokesman Stephane Castonguay also urged Thailand’s leadership not to deviate from the decision to hold elections in November, “We welcomed the prime minister’s public commitment to hold national elections no later than November 2018. We look forward to Thailand’s return to a democratic government via free and fair elections as soon as possible.”
The Prime Minister and his cabinet have insisted that the latest election delays have been caused by the NLA, and there was no interference from the government, with PM Prayut explaining, “I am not able to interfere because these are legal issues that involve the responsible departments.”
However, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva questioned the junta’s statements that they hadn’t influence the NLA, calling on Gen Prayut’s government to clarify their position, “If the NCPO wants to postpone it should tell the public upfront, otherwise this will undermine its credibility.”
Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former education minister with the Pheu Thai Party expressed suspicion about the election delays: “As long as the NCPO and the military are not sure that they will be able to come back to power after the election, there will not be an election.”
Rumours that Prayut is hoping to continue his leadership role in post-election Thailand have been strengthened by his assertion that he is no longer a soldier, but rather a politician. It is also believed that the junta are planning to form a new political party to rival the country’s established political parties. Election delays will enable this new party to establish itself and woo MPs from existing political parties.
Prayut and the NCPO also need more time to repair public confidence in their ability to lead, after graft allegations against Deputy PM Prawit, whose extravagant luxury watch collection is estimated to worth more than $1.2 million, have tarnished the junta’s image. Prayut and Prawit’s reactions to the suspicious death of a promising young army cadet also diminished public support for the military government.
Privy Council president, Prem Tinsulanonda, has warned Prayut that public support is slipping, and a new poll conducted by Bangkok University, confirmed the PM’s waning support, with only 36.8 percent of respondents saying they would back him to stay on as Prime Minister, compared with 52.8 percent of respondents who were asked the same question last year.
The NCPO has also struggled to achieve many of the ambitious goals they initially set themselves. The country’s education system remains in desperate need of reform, while national healthcare programmes are severely underfunded, with many government hospitals relying heavily on public donations to operate. The recent raid on the ‘Victoria Secret’ massage parlour shows that human trafficking, child sex trafficking and police corruption are still widespread.
Extending elections till 2019 will give the junta more time to tackle these issues, although it’s questionable how much they can achieve during their final 12 months in power.