Constitutional Change and Coming Elections in Thailand

Summary

The Thai parliament approved constitutional amendments that will help the ruling Democrat Party and its coalition partners in upcoming national elections. These amendments have set the stage for an intense election season that is almost certain to bring more political turmoil during a time of tense relations with Cambodia and, underlying it all, an impending monarchical succession.
Analysis

Thailandís House of Representatives and Senate on Feb. 11 approved several constitutional amendments by a wide majority after the opposition Puea Thai Party staged a walkout during the vote. With these charter changes, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the ruling Democrat Party will now be more likely to call national elections, expected before June. The election season promises to be intense, initiating the next episode of the countryís political crisis, ongoing since 2005.

The first constitutional change affects Thailandís international agreements, adjusting the part that requires that all international agreements relating to territory or economic matters (trade, investment, etc.) gain approval from the House and Senate. The Feb. 11 amendment requires a law to be drafted to classify the types of international agreements that require parliamentary approval. This amendment faced criticism not only from the Puea Thai Party but also from the Peopleís Alliance for Democracy (PAD, or Yellow Shirts), which claimed that it would make it easier for the government to strike a border deal with Cambodia. But Thailand and Cambodia have been working on joint boundary dispute resolution for more than 10 years, and there is no reason to believe that a final deal is in the works. For half a century, Thailand has opposed Cambodiaís internationally supported claim to the disputed area. The recent eruption of fighting suggests that the Thai side is hardening its stance, even as Cambodia gains greater leverage through drawing in international attention in an attempt to deter Thailand from taking unilateral action.

The second change was a rule shifting the electoral system. The number of members of parliament will increase from 480 to 500. Multiple-seat constituencies will shift to single-seat constituencies, meaning only one member of parliament will be elected per constituency. The change from multi-seat to single-seat constituencies will make it easier for smaller political forces, such as ruling coalition members Bhumjaithai party and Chart Thai Pattana Party, to compete, since they will have less area to canvass ó and, cynics say, fewer votes for their small budgets to buy. It also removes the 5 percent of total votes threshold required for a party to be eligible for party-list seats, reducing the advantage of big-party machinery and letting into parliament smaller parties that were previously ruled out because they got less than 5 percent of the vote.

The amendment also means the number of members of parliament who are elected directly (personally) by their constituency (called constituency-based members of parliament) will shrink from 400 to 375, while the number of lawmakers who are elected according to their partyís overall electoral success and candidate priorities (party-list parliamentarians) will rise from 100 to 125. This change was demanded by the ruling Democrat Party ó as a major party, the Democrats benefit from an enlarged party-list section. It also weakens the opposition Puea Thai Party, which prefers constituency seats, whether because its candidates have popular appeal in their districts or because the party has superior funding, bribing and door-to-door campaigning techniques. Also, 16 of the constituency-based seats that will be eliminated are located in the north and northeast dominated by the Puea Thai Party, whereas only eight constituency-based seats will be removed from southern and central Thailand, where the Democrat Party is strongest.

These electoral changes, meant to benefit the Democrat Party and its coalition partners, now pave the way for party leader Abhisit to call for new elections. He has said elections will take place by June. The Democrat Party needs to prove it is legitimate and has a popular mandate because it rose to power through a parliamentary vote, not a national election, after the PAD protests in late 2008 toppled its predecessor government, a former incarnation of the Puea Thai Party.

Intense Elections

The elections will therefore serve as a lightning rod for political activity, with intense campaigning and attempts by the different activist groups and parties to undermine or embarrass each other and promote themselves, including smear campaigns, protests and activism, coup rumors and political intimidation violence such as small explosive devices or attacks.

Both the PAD and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, or Red Shirts) are planning more protests going forward, but the election may serve to prevent mass protests from taking shape for the time being, as parties and activists focus energy on campaigning. Moreover, the government is trying to pre-empt these groups. It has already this week invoked the Internal Security Act to dissuade the PAD from besieging government buildings, and STRATFOR sources in Bangkok believe elections will be held in the spring to interrupt the period during which farms lie fallow and the UDD movement has been able in 2009 and 2010 to bring in large numbers of rural people for disruptive protests in Bangkok.

Nevertheless, a number of factors suggest Thailand is heading for another episode in the political crisis. First, the Puea Thai Party has in various incarnations been hugely popular and, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, won national elections by huge margins in 2001 and 2005; Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006, and his proxies won elections subsequently, only to be thwarted by mass protests and court rulings. The pro-Thaksin opposition remains hugely popular, despite Thaksinís exile and the splintering of the UDD movement, and therefore commands a strong electoral force going into the elections. In fact, even now the Puea Thai Party has more parliamentarians than the Democrats; the Democrats are able to rule because of their coalition with smaller parties, hence their desire to promote these smaller partiesí election chances and erode Puea Thaiís electoral advantages through constitutional amendments.

The Democrats spent more than a decade as the opposition until they grabbed power after their rivals were disbanded in 2008. They have managed to gain votes since the 2006 military coup; in 2007, they trailed the Peopleís Power Party (Puea Thaiís former incarnation) by a couple hundred thousand votes, far less than previously. They also have consolidated some power after suppressing the UDD protests in April 2010 and presenting themselves as having restored stability and developing a credible roadmap for national reconciliation. They also aim to benefit from the Feb. 11 constitutional amendments. But they remain at heart an elite movement rooted in Bangkokís establishment, and their ability to compete with the popular opposition remains in question.

The battle lines are thus drawn, and the elections will be hotly disputed and ridden with accusations and scandals. The intensity of this election season, and the aftermath, may well push the limits of the rolling political crisis. For example, pressure from the PAD on the current government, which has difficulty cracking down on the group because of mutual sympathizers, contributed to the heightened tensions on the Cambodian border that erupted in conflict Feb. 4-7. This area remains prone ó as always ó to further conflicts, with Thailand recently reinforcing armor and conducting regular flybys with fighter jets. The danger is that political forces in Thailand will go to greater and greater extremes to drive their agenda and affect public perceptions ahead of the election, aggravating domestic or international antagonisms. If border tensions worsen along with rising turbulence in Thailandís internal politics, the military could also take border matters into its own hands, though total war with Cambodia still seems unlikely.

Monarchical Succession

The deeper problem is that even were elections to return a clear-cut and legitimate victor, the crisis will not stop. This is because it is being driven by the underlying monarchical succession, the first since 1946. The succession means the entire system is in flux, and all stakeholders are maneuvering to gain greater position amid a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The Thai army, while formally adverse to intervention, remains prepared to intervene in the event that domestic balance reaches the verge of collapse.

If elections return the incumbent, then the Puea Thai opposition will likely receive it as proof that democracy is being thwarted by the Democrats conspiring with the military; Puea Thai likely will then regroup and launch another wave of destabilizing mass protests via the UDD. If the elections result in a victory for the Puea Thai Party, then the civil and military elite will face the prospect of a Thaksin-affiliated populist government that they perceive as bent on strengthening its bases of power and removing institutional obstacles to its rise. The likely result of this is mass protests by the PAD or even intervention by the military, which remains resolutely opposed to Thaksin and his proxies. Serious domestic turmoil, regardless of the source, would heighten the chances of military intervention, though a Thaksin-friendly government would bring far higher chances for such an outcome.

There remains a third possibility, that the major parties will accept the election results, decline to orchestrate mass protests and reach some sort of accommodation ruling out both Thaksin and military coups, then focus on competing within the electoral system. Thailand has remained extraordinarily resilient over time and stable beneath the political drama on the surface. The problem is that the current transition is the first of its type in half a century, bringing greater uncertainty.

STRATFOR