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Thailand’s Election Date Set For Late March, Fiver Years After The Coup

On Tuesday, Thanathorn told VOA the election was just a small first step in what would be a protracted struggle to wrestle power

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Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures the Thai way shortly after accepting the ASEAN Summit and Related Summits' hosting and chairmanship for next year in Thailand from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in Singapore, Nov. 15, 2018. VOA

Nearly five years after the military stormed to power in yet another coup, Thailand has finally announced an official election date scheduled for late March.

It comes with mounting defiance to the army’s tight control over freedom of expression, as activists and artists increasingly risk the threat of jail to publicly demand a ballot.

Thai Election Commission Chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong told a press conference Wednesday the date had been set for March 24.

“That is the date, which is flexible enough and should be beneficial to everyone concerned. That is the main reason why we decided to choose that date,” he said.

February date

Public frustration flared when it recently was announced the long promised vote would be delayed for a sixth time because of concerns the Feb. 24 scheduled date could conflict with King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s coronation in May.

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Activists and university students gather to demand the first election in Thailand, since the military seized power in a 2014 coup, in Bangkok, Jan. 8, 2019. VOA

That excuse had perplexed many, given that pushing the date back would bring it into even closer conflict with the coronation.

A group of arch royalists staged a demonstration directly outside the Election Commission to protest the pre-coronation ballot date immediately after it was announced Wednesday.

Wide field of parties

A particularly wide field of smaller parties now is set to contest the election in a political environment that has opened somewhat since the junta relaxed wide-ranging bans on political activities in December.

It will still be a democratic election, however, that comes with many autocratic caveats enshrined in the constitution Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha imposed after he seized power from Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government in 2014.

Major concerns include the military being able to virtually hand pick the entire 250-person Senate. Future governments also will be locked into a legally binding 20-year junta-devised development plan covering everything from national security to social equality.

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Messages from activists demanding quick elections to end military rule is pictured at a university in Bangkok, Jan. 19, 2019. VOA

Military retains control

Paul Chambers, a political analyst and lecturer in Thailand’s Naresuan University, said the military also would retain significant control over its budgets after the election through a constitution that also allowed for an unelected prime minister.

“So, there is a democracy, there are elections, but when people say, ‘Oh, Thailand’s going back to democracy,’ it’s not the same quality of democracy that used to exist,” he said.

A very powerful military that could appoint people to positions in the army previously overseen by the elected prime minister would remain behind the scenes, Chambers emphasized.

In October, incoming Royal Thai Army commander Gen. Apirat Kongsompong refused to rule out yet another coup after the election.

Thailand has had 19 attempted coups and 12 successful ones since 1932.

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A Buddhist monk and a patient sweep the yard at Wat Thamkrabok monastery in Saraburi province, Thailand, Feb. 3, 2017.

Rival parties

In addition to the Pheu Thai party aligned with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and longtime rivals the Democrats, the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party will compete with several smaller parties.

One that has attracted considerable interest is the progressive and diverse team that has united behind 40-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward.

Also Read: Calm Settles Over Congo After Election Result

On Tuesday, Thanathorn told VOA the election was just a small first step in what would be a protracted struggle to wrestle power from those who had controlled the wealth and power of the country for decades.

“So, if you want to correct what’s wrong over the past decade, there’s only one way you can solve that. You tackle the root cause of the problems. That means you have to deal with these structures, with this group of people. I haven’t seen any politicians trying to do this before,” he said.

“Since 1932, since the democratic revolution happened in Thailand — it’s been 86 years — and we’ve still been only this far. I believe democratization in this country will not be completed in the next year or two,” Thanathorn said. (VOA)

Next Story

Poverty and Inequality Rising Rapidly in Thailand: Report

Poverty, Inequality in Thailand on the Rise, World Bank Says

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"Taking the Pulse of Poverty and Inequality in Thailand," launched last week, says the country's poverty rate jumped from 7.2% to 9.8% between 2015 and 2018, adding nearly 2 million new people to the ranks of the poor. Pixabay

By Zsombor Peter

Thailand’s poverty rate has been rising in recent years despite steady, if slow, overall economic growth, a new World Bank report says, widening the gap between rich and poor in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

“Taking the Pulse of Poverty and Inequality in Thailand,” launched last week, says the country’s poverty rate jumped from 7.2% to 9.8% between 2015 and 2018, adding nearly 2 million new people to the ranks of the poor. Inequality, as measured by household consumption, also spiked in 2016 for the first time in four years and has eased little since.

Analysts see a direct link between those figures and the results of last year’s general elections, Thailand’s first since a 2014 military coup led by then-General Prayut Chan-ocha, now the country’s prime minister.

Pheu Thai, a party tied to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, won the second most votes and the largest share of seats in the popularly elected House of Representatives, the lower house of the National Assembly,  with strong support from some of the country’s poorest provinces in the North and Northeast.

A junta-appointed Senate and Election Commission finally tipped the contest to form a majority government in Prayut’s favor, but the numbers echoed the lasting disaffection of the country’s poor.

“Plummeting incomes were clearly a major factor in the opposition’s strong showing in the 2019 general election. That is why Pheu Thai did so well — especially given  that rural farmers and also urban households continue to be attracted by the populism of Thaksin,” said Paul Chambers, a political analyst and lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University.

Thaksin was first elected prime minister in 2001, after the shock of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, and reelected four years later only to be kicked out of office by a military coup in 2006. The telecoms tycoon now lives abroad, avoiding a 2008 corruption conviction that he disputes. However, the subsidies, cash transfers and other populist policies he pushed have left him and his proxies with a loyal following among the farmers of Thailand’s rural North and Northeast, who feel left behind by an urban elite cloistered mostly in the capital, Bangkok.

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The World Bank said many of Thailand’s poverty spikes coincided with regional or global financial crises or with drought but added that periods of political instability also tend to depress consumption and investment, which can drive incomes down and poverty rates up. Pixabay

“That is partly why Thaksin was able to rise in the early 2000s, because of grievances over this disproportionate allocation of resources,” said Harrison Cheng, an associate director with consulting firm Control Risks who follows Thailand.

He said the concentration of wealth and power in Bangkok has continued under Prayut.

The World Bank report backs him up. It shows poverty hovering steadily at about 2% between 2015 and 2018 in Bangkok while rising everywhere else, nowhere more so than in the strife-torn South. Riven by a Muslim insurgency, the South became the country’s poorest region in 2017, only just edging out the Northeast with a poverty rate of about 12%. The South again topped the Northeast in 2018 with a poverty rate just over 14%.

The report ascribes the latest rises in poverty and inequality to droughts, slow economic growth and falling incomes among both rural farmers and urban businesses.

The bank says Thailand has now seen four such spikes since 2000, more than any of the other nine Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries.

The report’s author, Judy Yang, attributes that, at least in part, to slow wage growth during the period, slower than in any of the bloc’s other large economies.

“If you are a household, what really pulls you out of poverty is getting a better-paying job, getting more income, getting labor market income,” she said.

What also sets Thailand apart is its political turmoil. The coup-prone country has seen four swings between military and civilian rule since 2006, governments cut short by controversial court orders and several rounds of mass protests, some of them deadly.

The World Bank said many of Thailand’s poverty spikes coincided with regional or global financial crises or with drought but added that periods of political instability also tend to depress consumption and investment, which can drive incomes down and poverty rates up.

Cheng, of Control Risks, said his conversations with clients confirm that Thailand’s volatile politics have kept many potential investors at bay, holding the economy back.

“A lot of the investors are staying away and taking a wait-and-see approach for a long, long time now,” he said.

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A man begs for money in central Bangkok, Thailand. VOA

“If they are not in Thailand already, they will be thinking very seriously about whether they should do so because what if there’s a change in government again? What if there are massive street protests like in 2013, 2014? Are you going to repeat the 2010 Bangkok standoff between the Red Shirts and the military?” he added, referring to Thaksin supporters by their color-coded apparel of choice.

Cheng said the constant and sudden turnover in governments has also fostered a habit of short-term policy prescriptions on poverty and inequality that have done more to soothe the symptoms than cure the causes.

Chambers and Cheng agreed that if the latest bout of bad numbers gets worse, Prayut’s problems will also be increased by swelling ranks of not just the poor but also of disenchanted voters.

The World Bank report proffers poverty and inequality figures only up to 2018 but adds that “trends beyond this year are not optimistic, given continued low economic growth rates and stagnant wages.”

Another severe drought devastated farmers last year as the country’s gross domestic product growth rank sank to 2.4%, its lowest since 2014. GDP forecasts for 2020 are even worse, owing much to the novel corona virus outbreak, which has hit the country’s important tourism sector hard.

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To counter those blows, Prayut’s government has ramped up and introduced new social welfare programs for the poorest households and last week approved a stimulus package expected to pump some $12.6 billion into the economy.

The World Bank recommends that authorities continue to strengthen the country’s safety net and create better jobs for low-income earners in the short term. In the longer term, it says giving all children equal access to health and education opportunities would be the best way to make future generations more prosperous and more equal. (VOA)