Thursday, August 22, 2019

Election uncertainty is damaging the economy

Jan 08. 2019
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Junta’s delaying tactics now threaten to whip up financial turmoil and social unrest

There is no justification for the instability Thailand is suffering as we enter our fifth year under junta rule. 

The year of uncertainty began with no clear plan for the election, a task meant to be completed long ago but delayed until this year, when Thailand has several important events to handle.

The junta has had plenty of time to call a general election since taking power in May 2014, but has come up with a range of excuses for dragging its feet. In reality, an unelected elite have for the past half a decade  created confusion and instability in order to claim legitimacy for extending their rule.

Thailand has three major events to handle this year: an election whose date we still don’t know, the coronation, and the chairing of Asean. Each will require huge government resources, time, budget and, more importantly, a peaceful environment.

The junta has known for years that 2019 marks Thailand’s turn at the Asean helm. The chair rotates alphabetically between countries, though members have previously chosen to forego their turn amid domestic difficulties. Among them was Myanmar in 2006, and Indonesia in 2011, which was distracted by a general election and so handed the helm to Brunei.

Yet despite having no clear plan for the election, Thai officials have informed their Asean colleagues that the Kingdom is ready to steer the region this year. The blithe assurances amid uncertainty ignore the debacle that occurred a decade ago when protesters stormed an Asean summit venue in Pattaya.

Meanwhile the junta apparently sees no problem in airily declaring the election could be held in late February, meaning the year’s first Asean summit has been put back to June to allow a new Thai government to form. Meantime, Asean and its leaders will have wasted half a year before getting to work on their annual agenda.

With early May announced as the date of the coronation, the junta had a new excuse to create further confusion by proposing the election be delayed again to March. That, in turn, could mean the Asean summit is postponed to the second half of the year.

Nobody wants to see instability in the country. Pro-democracy advocates and politicians are right to pressure the junta for an election date and no further delays. 

Yet rather than responding responsibly to those calls, the junta-backed government has raised passed the buck to the Election Commission, with an ominous warning that the election must be completed within 150 days of the organic law on the MPs election coming into force. In the other words, the election could be nullified if it’s ruled to be unconstitutional. 

The ongoing uncertainty has consequences not only for the Asean meeting and Thailand’s reputation as chair, but also for the Kingdom’s economic prospects in the year ahead. The junta knows this well since its economic tsar Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak admits that instability is eroding the confidence of local and foreign investors who are a major growth engine for the Thai economy.

For the sake of their business plans, investors need to know when the incumbents will be replaced by a new government and what its economic policy will look like. 

The prevailing national uncertainty is especially ridiculous when you consider Thailand has been ruled by a dictatorship since 2014. This all-powerful regime is supposedly unable to set an election date. 

If the instability continues, economic opportunity will be lost. And if economic performance suffers a downturn, the junta should know that social unrest is right around the corner.

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