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Thailand faces instability after a skewed election: ‘The biggest challenge is how they survive’

Thailand faces instability after a skewed election: ‘The biggest challenge is how they survive’
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, left, bows as he participates in an anointment ceremony at the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok on May 4, 2019. (Associated Press)

Thailand’s military appointed the election commissioners. It repeatedly postponed voting day.

Its leading opponents were hit with court cases or disqualified altogether, and the night before the election Thailand’s king appeared to endorse the army-backed incumbent.

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With all that help, the military prevailed – barely.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha appeared likely Thursday to retain his position after the election commission, using a controversial formula for apportioning parliamentary seats, left an anti-military coalition just short of a majority in the lower house after Thailand’s first election in eight years.

Days removed from an ostentatious royal coronation that was designed to unify Thailand, official results from the March election showed a country still bitterly divided and seemingly headed for another period of political instability.

Analysts said the military-backed party headed by Prayuth, a former general who has been in power since launching a coup in 2014, would join with a smattering of smaller parties to cobble together the narrowest of majorities in the 500-seat lower house.

The Palang Pracharat party was expected to lead a wobbly coalition of up to 20 parties — including many with just one lawmaker — that together would control 254 seats in the lower house.

Combined with 250 seats the military appoints in the upper house — which is not subject to popular vote — Prayuth had a clear path to holding on to the prime minister’s job. The ex-military man had sought to legitimize his position with an election after the longest period of military rule in Thailand’s modern history.

But analysts said the slim majority in the lower house would probably mean a shaky government that would struggle to pass legislation and might not hold together for more than a year or two. That would make it difficult for Thailand to tackle its sluggish economic growth and heal the divisions of more than a decade marked by coups, street protests and shrinking democratic space.

“The biggest challenge is how they survive,” said Prajak Kongkirati, an assistant political science professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

“Maintaining political stability will be the biggest concern of the new government.”

The largest opposition party, Pheu Thai, said it would mount a legal challenge to the election commission’s convoluted formula for determining parliamentary seats, which was being used for the first time and remained little understood to most Thais.

After initial results from the March 24 vote, Pheu Thai said that it had formed a coalition of seven parties that opposed a continuation of military rule, and that together they held a small majority — 255 seats — in the lower house.

But under results endorsed by the election commission late Wednesday, the anti-military grouping’s tally dropped to 245 seats. That’s because Thailand has two types of lawmakers: those elected by constituencies and a smaller number elected from party lists based on how many overall votes the parties receive.

With its 250 upper house seats, Palang Pracharat needed to win only 126 lower house seats to have a majority in the combined body. The election commission’s results gave the party 115 seats – 11 short of what it needed.

And the commission, without explanation, assigned 11 seats to small parties that each had only one lawmaker, and were seen as likely to join the military coalition.

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“The election results have been unfair chiefly due to the fact that the formula used to calculate and allocate party-list MP seats has been changed from what people assumed prior to the election,” said Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior Thai journalist and staff writer for the Khaosod news site.

“Thailand is entering a new chapter with the junta masquerading as a legitimate regime.”

The results set the stage for a period of horse-trading and political games before parliament convenes for the first time May 23, with the prime minister to be chosen in early June. Prajak, the analyst, said that the military would be able to offer large amounts of cash or intimidate lawmakers from the smaller parties to get them to join its coalition.

“There will be inducements,” Prajak said. During the election campaign, “many parties were approached with generous offers … of 50 million baht [$1.57 million] to switch to Prayuth.”

Court cases still hang over leading anti-military figures, and if they are disqualified it could lead to even more seats sliding into the pro-military camp.

Thai politics in the last two decades has been a two-horse race between pro-military establishment parties and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon whose parties were ousted by coups in 2006 and 2014.

But this election saw the entrance of a charismatic new opposition figure, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the 40-year-old scion of an auto parts empire. Thanathorn’s brand-new party captured the third-most votes after Palang Pracharat and Pheu Thai and holds 80 seats, making it a powerful member of the anti-military coalition.

Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit founded the most popular new political force in Thailand.
Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit founded the most popular new political force in Thailand. (Lillian Suwanrumpha / AFP/Getty Images)

Thanathorn’s Future Forward party appealed to Thailand’s many young first-time voters – who account for about 14% of the 51 million people eligible to cast ballots – by pledging to introduce welfare programs financed by cutting the substantial military budget.

That made Thanathorn a target of the pro-army establishment. He has been charged in two criminal cases, including one for sedition, that he claims are “political sabotage.”

In a statement Thursday on his Facebook page, Thanathorn renewed his calls for lawmakers to “turn off the senators’ switch,” asking all anti-military lawmakers to band together to keep Palang Pracharat from achieving 126 lower house seats.

The election commissioners have defended their counting formula, saying it was derived from Germany. On Thai social media, the math has been the butt of jokes.

If they were assigned any responsibility for this election system, Prajak said, “Germans would be furious.”

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