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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

Taiwan President Announced Re- election after she Spoke Against China’s President Suggestion

Tsai indicated she plans to run for another four-year term as president.

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FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 5, 2019. VOA

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced her re-election bid this week following a bump in public polling that came after she spoke out against Chinese President Xi Jinping’s suggestion that Taiwan and China unify as one country.

She was polling at 24 percent after her party lost local elections in November. In January she was speaking out every few days against Xi’s idea and her approval ratings hit 34.5 percent by Jan. 21, according to a Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation survey.

On Wednesday, Tsai indicated she plans to run for another four-year term as president. Inspired by her jump in approval ratings, Tsai will center at least the early part of her campaign over the coming year on raising public suspicion of China, political scientists say.

“Their campaign strategy is to speak of hating China, fearing China and refusing China,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University. If officials reiterate these messages and they appear in the mass media, he said, “ultimately people will be affected by them.”

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the 1940s and insists that the two sides eventually unify. Most Taiwanese oppose that outcome.

 

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FILE- President of China Xi Jinping arrives for the APEC CEO Summit 2018 at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Nov. 17, 2018. VOA

Opportunity to talk about China

The Chinese president’s Jan. 2 speech urging Taiwan to accept unification gave Tsai an unexpected opening to warn citizens against ties with China, political experts say.

In his remarks, Xi urged Taiwan to merge with China under a “one country, two systems” model that his government applies now to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is ruled from Beijing, but local officials make some decisions.

China has claimed Taiwan since the Chinese Civil War, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost and rebased their government in Taiwan. Tsai took office in 2016. Since then she has irked China by refusing to negotiate on the condition that both sides belong to one China.

More than 70 percent of Taiwanese say in government surveys they prefer today’s self-rule, or full legal independence from China, over unification.

In one comment since the Chinese president’s speech, Tsai warned at an impromptu news conference Wednesday against any China-Taiwan peace agreement.

“China’s military ambitions and not giving up deployment of arms against Taiwan are making the region unstable,” she said. “As China doesn’t give up weapons aimed at Taiwan and emphasizes ‘one country, two systems,’ there’s no way to negotiate equally and there can’t be any real peace.”

Knack for China issues

Tsai, as former chairwoman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and a former government official in charge of Taiwan’s China policy, knows the issue particularly well, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan.

“This is her forte,” Lin said. “She has been immersed in it for 18 long years.”

Since 2016, China has shown displeasure with Tsai by passing military aircraft and ships near Taiwan and persuading five foreign countries to switch allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. Taiwan has just 17 allies left.

“In international relations, what she can do is limited, we all know that, but in winning the public support in Taiwan, especially on controversial issues like ‘one country, two systems,’ she’s very, very capable,” Lin said.

Her party takes a guarded view of China compared to Taiwan’s main opposition camp, which advocates that the two sides talk on Beijing’s condition.

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FILE – Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je casts his ballot at a polling station, Nov. 24, 2018, in Taipei, Taiwan. VOA

Tough campaign

According to a survey released Thursday by Taiwan television network TVBS, Tsai would take 16 percent of the vote if the presidential race were held today and she ran against non-party aligned Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and Han Kuo-yu, opposition Nationalist Party mayor of the southern city Kaohsiung. The two mayors would get shares of more than 30 percent each, TVBS said.

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FILE – Nationalist Party’s Han Kuo-yu reacts after winning the mayoral election in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Nov. 24, 2018. VOA

Much of the public wants Tsai to stand up against China but also take stronger action on domestic economic problems, voters said in interviews in November. Among the domestic issues: low wages compared to other parts of Asia and rising costs, especially real estate.

ALSO READ: Judge Order Government Find Separated Children at US-Mexico Border

“She has already shown that she is against the ‘one family, two sides’ or ‘one country, two systems.’ That’s good,” said Shane Lee, political scientist with Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. “That will probably give her some points. But domestically there are many policies she will have to change.” (VOA)