Machiavelli Comes to Thailand

The Thai election – the first since the military coup in 2014 – is now over.  Amidst all the cries of “cheating” from all sides, and some uncertainty about the exact results given the many inconsistencies in what has been reported, speculation has also begun about what kind of new government will emerge.

My take is that everyone is looking at this with too simplistic an eye.  Politics is never simple, whether in Thailand or anywhere else.


For those who did not watch the Thai election drama unfold with rapt attention, as I did, here’s Thai Politics for Dummies, 2019 Edition. 

In 2014, an elected government led by the populist Pheu Thai party (literally “For Thais”) was overthrown in a military coup after months of street demonstrations largely supported by the right wing.  The military promised a return to democracy “soon”, but then kept delaying elections because the junta leader, Prayuth (I am using given names throughout out of pity for non-Thai readers), had an increasing desire to continue as the country’s Prime Minister.

In the meantime a new constitution was developed by the military junta, and approved by the public after limited (i.e. restricted by law) discussion.  Among other things, one-third of legislators would be appointed by the junta for the first five years, meaning that after an election the junta would have a leg up in forming the “elected” government.  Then, a pro-junta political party, Palang Pracharath (approximately “Peoples’ State Party”) was set up to contest the elections, and support Prayuth as elected Prime Minister.

Pheu Thai, supporters of billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin, now in exile (along with his sister Yingluck, also a former Prime Minister) due to charges against him after an earlier coup, continued in existence awaiting the election.  Their erstwhile leader (at least, in-country) is Sudarat.  The other main political party, the Democrats, led by former Prime Minister Abhisit, was relatively silent in all of this.  Other parties continued, or were formed, of which the most impactful was Future Forward, led by young, hip, auto parts billionaire Thanathorn.  He has promised to replace the new constitution with something more democratic, and to get control over the military, which has long had a surprising amount of power in Thailand.

Until elections were called, though, none of the political parties could campaign, and there was a ban on public political gatherings, even non-partisan ones.  Despite that, the junta leader Prayuth campaigned all over the country.  He was, after all, the government.  He was the only one allowed to do so.

The 2019 Election

The Thai election was held last Sunday, March 24th.  Reports are that 35 million votes were cast, although there is some debate about the numbers.

While the results are not final, for the 500 seats up for grabs (350 for individual constituencies, 150 based on popular vote), it appears that the junta party got about 7.9 million votes, Pheu Thai about 7.4 million, and Future Forward about 5.9 million.  When it all translates into seats in the legislature, the likely numbers are Pheu Thai – 137, Junta – 117, Future Forward – 81, Bhumjaithai (“Thai Pride”, supporters of, among other things, legalizing marijuana) – 53, Democrats – 51, and ten others – 61.

As has been the case in the past, Pheu Thai was the solid winner in the north and northeast of Thailand, generally poorer areas that have long responded to Thaksin-style populism.  The junta did well with older voters looking for stability, and also influenced by recent increases in state payments to seniors.  Future Forward was the overwhelming choice of younger voters, of which there were 7 million who voted for the first time in this election.

Let’s Make a Deal

Clearly, a coalition government of some sort will be required.  This is where things get interesting.

As I say, there’s lots of speculation, and lots of people giving advice to the parties and to the Prime Ministerial hopefuls.  (I have no opinion, and no advice to anyone.  However, I do love to speculate.)

There are two parts to this question.  First, who will be Prime Minister?  Second, who will form the “government” in the legislature?

Everyone appears to assume that the 250 legislators (senators) appointed by the junta will vote en bloc to choose Prayuth as Prime Minister.  That means that if at least 126 of the elected representatives also vote for Prayuth, he is in.  Since the pro-junta party will likely end up with 117 seats or so, and some of the smaller parties are also conservative (or supine), this seems pretty straightforward.

Let’s assume that Prayuth only gets 200 of the senators’ votes (because in politics no-one can be trusted for longer than ten minutes).  Then, he is only elected Prime Minister if the pro-junta party also gets either Bhumjaithai or the Democrats to support him as well.  Either is possible, probably even likely.  Result is still Prayuth.

Then, on the question of how the government is formed, only the 500 seats of the legislature really matter.  The parties are loosely divided by most commentators into the pro-democracy parties (300 elected), the pro-junta parties (130 elected), and those who could go either way.

Two likely scenarios have been bruited in the last couple of days.

In the first scenario, the pro-junta party is supported by Bhumjaithai, the Democrats, and several smaller parties, to get to the magic 251 elected who could carry most bills in the legislature.  Support would be based in part on the fact that Prayuth would win the Prime Ministership.  Pheu Thai and Future Forward, with 218 elected between them, would be the primary opposition. 

The pro-junta party has already declared that, as the ones with the highest popular vote, they are the logical leader of the government.  Although Democrat leader Abhisit said during the campaign that the Democrats would not support a pro-junta government, Abhisit resigned after the party’s disastrous showing in the election.  That promise no longer counts.

In the second scenario, Pheu Thai is supported by Future Forward, Bhumjaithai, and smaller parties, and gets to about 300 elected.  The Democrats, who have said they will never join a coalition with Pheu Thai, their arch-rivals, will sit on the sidelines (and ultimately whither away).  The pro-junta party would be the opposition.  

Thanathorn, the Future Forward leader, has already thrown his support behind the Pheu Thai leader, Sudarat, as Prime Minister.  That could be code for forming a pro-democracy coalition in the legislature with Pheu Thai in charge.  Some commentators have, probably correctly, noted that if Thanathorn throws his lot in with Pheu Thai, that will leave him open to being painted as just another Thaksin acolyte, and destroy his political future.  It would also probably result in legislative gridlock, and perhaps even further interference by the military.

Both of these scenarios exist within the standard “selection of Prime Minister” assumption, i.e. Prayuth is still the odds-on favourite to be Prime Minister, given the way the votes are stacked in his favour.

An Alternate Deal

The two most commonly discussed scenarios are both based on business as usual, and ignore the possibility that Thailand is entering a period of significant, even fundamental political change. 

Look at this instead with a Machiavellian eye.  The next Prime Minister, whoever he or she is, will have to face significant challenges in a less than stable political environment. 

The Thai economy will be buffeted with indirect effects from economic changes on the horizon in China, India, North America, and Europe.  There is a good chance Thai tourism will decline in the next couple of years as the economies in other countries go through cyclic downturns, even recession.  More important, however, Thai manufacturing could be hit as other countries repatriate manufacturing jobs previously offshored to Thailand, or China competes more aggressively for those jobs.  Thailand is very vulnerable right now, and other countries are increasingly competing for economic activity that could have in the past gone to Thailand.

Another challenge may be changes in the role of the Royal Family in Thai society and Thai politics.  The now-deceased King Bhumibol was revered by many Thais, like a much-loved father.  In fact, father’s day in Thailand is his birthday.  For most Thais, he was, until his death, the only king they had ever known.  Although a constitutional monarch, he was known for his charitable and public interest activities, and anything he said or did was highly influential.  His son, King Vajiralongkorn, who is in his sixties, lives most of the time in Munich, and does not yet have the same connection to the Thai people as his father.  For those in the West, this has some of the same aspects as the difference between the public’s view of Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, and her heir, Prince Charles. 

It is not yet known whether King Vajiralongkorn will have a different approach to Thai politics.  However, it is almost certain there will be some change, just because his father’s role was so specific to him personally. 

The monarchy challenge could be much more complex if, as rumoured (many say with tongue in cheek), the King’s older sister, American-educated international Thai celebrity Ubolratana marries divorced former Prime Minister Thaksin.  Technically no longer a princess, because her first marriage in 1972 was to an American (i.e. a non-royal), Ubolratana was prominent in her attendance at the wedding of Thaksin’s daughter in Hong Kong last week, and has been friends with Thaksin for many years.  They are the same age, and have many common friends and interests.  The possibility is not completely crazy.  (Well, OK, maybe a little bit crazy.)

If Prayuth is Prime Minister, he will have these things to deal with, and will have to do it in an environment where he is no longer entirely in control (as he has been for the last five years).  He is a general, not a politician.  The legislature will have strong opposition parties who can prevent Prayuth from doing many things.  As is clear from recent events, even the military is no longer in Prayuth’s control.  New power bases have been formed, and he is not part of them.

Who else could be Prime Minister?  The obvious choice is Sudarat, but that is a complete non-starter.  Although Future Forward has said they will back her, along with her own Pheu Thai, neither the pro-junta party, nor the Democrats, will do so.  Even if she got the support of everyone else, she could not get a majority of 376 votes.

Yesterday it was reported that Thaksin has offered the Prime Minister role to construction billionaire Anutin, the leader of the Bhumjaithai Party and son of one of its founders (also a former Prime Minister).  While that shows commendable lateral thinking, it would be very surprising if Anutin accepts that offer.  As a number of commentators have already noted, he has close ties to the Royal Family, and would likely be unwilling to take the job without the King’s express approval.  

The other possibility is Thanathorn.  Now, before you scoff, maybe it is worth thinking through the implications.

If you are one of the opposition parties, what are your goals?  Well, the first is to get rid of Prayuth and establish some form of pro-democracy government.  That is the obvious one.  The second is to get rid of Thanathorn, the new kid on the block, whose new party is growing rapidly, and dangerous to the entrenched power of the older parties.

Consider the position of the Democrats, the oldest political party in Thailand.  If they support Prayuth as Prime Minister, they likely help him to his own demise.  He will not be able to handle the challenges facing him over the next five years.  The Peter Principle will prevail.  His government will be a failure. 

In parallel, though, Future Forward and its young, charismatic leader will be gaining strength, gearing up for the next election.  In this past election, Future Forward suffered because it didn’t have much in the way of local organization.  As a result, it won very few constituencies, despite its powerful result in the popular vote.  Five years from now, with a solid party structure around the country, Future Forward will be very strong.  Those at risk will be the parties supported by older voters (demographics rears its ugly head), and ones that have declining political influence.  That would be the Democrats (and maybe even Pheu Thai).

On the other hand, if the opposition parties, including the Democrats, band together and elect Thanathorn as Prime Minister (do the math), what happens?

For Prayuth, now 65, he will be gone entirely from the scene by the time of the next election.  No longer part of the government or the legislature, he will have no platform or voice.  He will be a historical figure of little importance, and no relevance to present-day politics.  A footnote. 

Goal: get rid of Prayuth?  Accomplished.

Thanathorn as Prime Minister faces the two challenges of economic weakness, and the changing role of the monarchy, just like anyone else.  He also has two challenges of his own making, promises he made that he will be expected to keep.  He has to manage somehow to get the constitution changed, by itself a huge battle.  And, he has to get the military under control.  Thai governments have tried to do that for decades, and have never succeeded. 

For the Democrats, and Pheu Thai for that matter, installing Thanathorn as Prime Minister is, in effect, giving him enough rope to hang himself.  He is rushed into a tough job before he’s ready.  Inexperienced at government, facing major challenges, and undermined behind the scenes by all other political parties, Thanathorn will either turn out to be the Second Coming (in Buddhist Thailand, no less), or more likely will fail miserably and no longer be a political force.  His young supporters, their hopes dashed by their hero’s weakness, will turn their backs on him and move on.

Goal: fight off the rise of Future Forward?  Accomplished.

My conclusion is that, if the political parties are thinking strategically (never guaranteed), they will elect Thanathorn as the next Prime Minister of Thailand. 

Thanathorn has said he doesn’t want the job.  Will he – whether out of miscalculation, ambition, or hubris – accept it if offered?

You can get rid of Prayuth by giving him the job.  You can get rid of both Prayuth and Thanathorn by giving Thanathorn the job.      

  • Jay Shepherd, March 26, 2019

About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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