On 19 September 2006, the Council for National Security (CNS) staged a coup against the civilian Thaksin Shinawatra government. The CNS remained in power for year and a half and wrote the 2007 Constitution with the goal of protecting Thailand from “electoral dictatorship” -- in other words, Thaksin’s influence on Thai politics.
However, the CNS attempt failed after Thaksin’s People Power Party won the 2007 election in a landslide. Although the party was later dissolved and its leading politicians were banned from politics, Thaksin still made a stunning comeback after Pheu Thai Party won the next election in 2011.
This is the reason people call the 2006 coup a “wasted” coup since the military government achieved almost nothing but a new constitution drafted during its regime. However, someone learnt some lessons.
On 22 May 2014, The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) staged a coup against Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Ever since, the NCPO has tried to establish political mechanisms to ensure this coup will not be wasted like the previous one.
Ensuring military influence in parliament
The NCPO learned that one mistake of the CNS was that the military junta totally abandoned politics immediately after it stepped down. This allowed political parties to gain popularity easily and grow stronger without interruption during the civilian government.
The NCPO, therefore, has institutionalised military influence in the 2017 Constitution in various ways. According to Section 269, the first 250-member senate will be appointed by the ruling junta to serve for five years after the first general election.
Though the list of appointed senators has not yet been finalised, six seats are already reserved for the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, the Supreme Commander, the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Police Commissioner.
Senators also have the right, jointly with the lower house, to approve a prime minister if the lower house cannot reach a consensus on who should be PM. In addition, Paiboon Nititawan, a former senator who was appointed by the junta to help draft the 2017 Constitution, has announced that he was setting up a political party with the goal to support the current junta head Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as an unelected ‘outsider’ PM
There is still a very slim chance of preventing the senate from exercising the right to jointly select the PM.
Before the election each party may name up to 3 candidates for prime minister. These do not have to be candidates for MP and do not even have to be party members. After the election, all persons named by parties who have obtained at 5% of House seats may then be nominated for election as PM by at least 10% of MPs. A winning candidate needs more than 50% of the vote.
It is possible that this person is an elected MP. It is also possible that they are not. It is even possible (and many think this is the more likely outcome) that no candidate can get the votes of more than 50% of MPs.
In that case, Article 272 will kick in if more than 50% of MPs and two-thirds of both houses so choose. This article nullifies the election of PM by the House alone and calls for an election by both House and Senate and they can vote anyone at all as PM, no matter whether they have been elected as MP or not.
But even under a joint House-Senate vote, it is possible that no one candidate will get a majority of the votes of both houses.
Article 5 would then come into play as the get-out clause for all political deadlocks. This says that solutions will be found ‘in accordance with constitutional practice in a democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State’.
The procedure is that the President of the Constitutional Court will call a meeting with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives, the President of the Senate, the President of the Supreme Court, the President of the Supreme Administrative Court, the President of the Constitutional Court, and the Presidents of the Constitutional Organizations. And they will vote on who will be Prime Minister; and it could be anyone.
More complex electoral system
Another lesson the NCPO has learnt from the CNS is that elections are unpredictable. After the 2006 coup, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved by the courts and banned 111 of its leading members from politics for 5 years. The 2007 Constitution also tinkered with the voting system in ways that were interpreted as favouring small and regional parties. But this could not prevent an overwhelming victory for the Thaksin-inspired People’s Power Party.
This time, the NCPO’s constitution drafters have introduced a complex electoral system called Mixed Member Apportionment (MMA)
. This system is thought to make it more difficult for Thailand to have a single dominant party.
In MMA system, voters will cast only one ‘fused’ ballot for both their constituency MP and the party list of that candidate’s party. So voters cannot, as they could under previous constitutions, vote for a constituency candidate for Party A, but for Party B in the party list vote. There then follows a complex method for calculating party list seats that ‘balances’ the number of seats each party wins under the constituency vote.
An analysis of this system
shows that it will probably result in fewer total seats for big parties, although the calculation method outlined in the constitution still leaves some questions unanswered and voters may change their voting behaviour in response to the new ballot-counting system
This system also favours medium-sized parties who can field candidates nationwide, but who in the past have won relatively few party list seats. One such party, Chartthaipattana, has already declared its support
for junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha to continue as Prime Minister for another ten years.
Even if one party can win the election, dominate parliament and get a PM elected without influence from the junta-appointed senate, it will still not be able to escape military influence. The NCPO has created a National Strategic Plan as a guideline that civilian governments have to follow for the next two decades. This is enshrined in the 2017 Constitution.
The first draft of this plan was published last week on the website of the National Economic and Social Development Board. The draft does not clearly state what kind of policy civilian governments have to follow, but rather discusses the challenges and opportunities that Thailand will experience in the future.
The junta has also appointed members of a National Strategy Committee (NSC) which will “monitor” future civilian governments’ compliance with the National Strategic Plan.
Out of 28 NSC members, 11 come from the military and police and five of them are the heads of Thailand’s security forces: the Supreme Commander, the commanders-in-chief of the Army, Navy and Air Force and the commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police. The permanent secretary of the Defence Ministry also has a seat while other ministries do not.
These seats can certainly ensure that the security forces maintain a crucial role in Thai politics even in the post-NCPO era.
Forming political coalitions
The list of NSC members also reflects another lesson learnt by the ruling junta -- to form military-dominated political coalitions. The military seem to have realised that they cannot compete against political parties for public popularity. Therefore, it is trying to seek popularity through the bureaucracy and big corporations.
Apart from security officials, the NSC includes civilians who are either representatives of big companies or bureaucrats. The big companies representatives in the NSC include Kan Trakulhoon, Chairman of the Board of Advance Info Service; Chartsiri Sophonpanich, President and Director of the Bangkok Bank; Pridi Daochai, Managing Director of Kasikornbank and President of the Thai Bankers’ Association and Banthoon Lamsam, Chief Executive Officer of Kasikornbank.
The bureaucrats include Paron Israsena Na Ayudhya, Chairman of the National Economic and Social Development Board and Prapat Panyachatrak, President of National Farmers Council.
The last, but arguably the most crucial, lesson learnt by the NCPO is that the CNS forgot to make people buy into authoritarian ideology. Pitch Pongsawat, a political science lecturer from Chulalongkorn University, has investigated how the NCPO has attempted to establish a dominant ideology during the past three years.
Unlike previous military governments, who just exercised power temporarily, the NCPO is trying to transform the country into a new form of permanent regime which needs to be supported by certain ideologies. According to Pitch, the NCPO has proposed two ideologies which are “pracharat (people’s state)” and “99.99% democracy.”
The word pracharat is in the second line of the National Anthem, whose beginning is translated as “Thailand embraces in its bosom all people of Thai blood, as the people’s state. Every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais.”
But the NCPO refers to it as a policy strategy that connects the people, the private sector and the government together. The basic concept
of pracharat, according to the junta, is to strengthen the local economy by following the late King Bhumibol’s philosophy of the Sufficiency Economy. According to junta head Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the pracharat policy is the opposite of politicians’ populist policies which have ruined Thai politics for decades.
“In the National Anthem, there is a word pracharat, not prachaniyom (populism). Today, we try to change populism into pracharat. I’m not fighting anybody, just trying to make people receive benefits equally by our own hands,” Prayut said
in the launching ceremony of the pracharat project.
However, Pitch argued that pracharat is just old wine in a new bottle. Some pracharat policies are very similar to so-called populism, for example, public housing, free wi-fi, TV dramas, village funds and agricultural subsidies. The difference is that national resources for pracharat policies have been distributed through government agencies, not directly to the people.
“I have talked to government officials in rural provinces. They said that the word pracharat has become a part of government projects. [It] is put into every single project and has become the signature of this government,” Pitch stated. “Pracharat comprises the state, the private sector and civil society. It has various goals, like improving exports and the agricultural sector. It’s corporatism in the new era.”
Pracharat has distributed large resources to government agencies who implement the policy, with the private sector as a supervisor. However, there is no space for politicians or elections in pracharat.
“In pracharat projects, there is no place for politicians and elections. It’s the formation of a new world without politicians. Thailand can survive by just having the state, a kind private sector and people living together.”
The second ideology the NCPO has tried to establish is “99.99 per cent democracy”. This term was firstly coined by the junta head.
“Our country nowadays is 99.99 per cent democratic. I never prohibit anybody from criticizing me, just don’t oppose me. If you were in other countries, you would be probably in jail or shot dead,” said Gen Prayut.
So what is the missing 0.01 per cent? The answer that Pitch has found is “freedom.” The junta is trying to convince Thais into believing that ‘too much’ freedom will only lead to chaos and disorder.
“I think it’s a keyword of the coup. Freedom leads to instability, disunity and crisis. It is evil. Therefore, oppressing us with the law, guns and military courts is counted as law enforcement in order to create order and peace,” Pitch explained. “The military, therefore, perceives itself as a peacekeeper and peace is unity. Thus, whatever leads to disunity can justify the military to get into politics.”
Pitch suggests that democratic forces in Thailand should develop an ideology that integrates both freedom and unity together as a counter-narrative to the NCPO’s 99.99 per cent democracy, because if the military successfully establishes this ideology, it can use disunity as an excuse to interrupt politics again in the future.