Sunday, August 25, 2019

Power balances on a half million votes

Mar 25. 2019
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By The Nation

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Phalang Pracharat’s built-in advantages ought to keep Prayut in charge, but expectations will be keener for a better society

The turnout of around 66 per cent of total eligible voters was not as high as people hoped and plead¬ed for, and the number of invalidated ballots was shamefully high. But the overall outcome of Sunday’s election was surely clear enough – most Thais prefer democracy’s freedoms even to the social stability that derived from the authoritarian rule they endured for last five years. That was the choice of a small but clear majority of the 33.6 million citizens who cast ballots. 

With 94 per cent of the votes counted by late yesterday afternoon, the Pheu Thai Party held a scant but significant lead in the tally over the Phalang Pracharat Party, which was founded specifically to try and keep the military in charge of government. 

With 138 constituency seats tentatively accredited to it (though not a single party-list seat), Pheu Thai – closely identified with ousted and self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra – has at least a slim chance of cobbling together a coalition government. Undemocratic restrictions that the ruling military junta built into the Constitution pose major obstacles for that to occur, however.

Phalang Pracharat will be eager to interpret its 7.7 million votes, half a million short of Pheu Thai’s tally, as a strong enough public mandate, a signal that legitimacy has been bestowed on the junta. But it cannot ignore the greater number of votes for change, especially knowing how the junta rendered the electoral playing field uneven. 

If the gap separating Pheu Thai and Phalang Pracharat has yet to be precisely measured, the fall of the Democrat Party was glaring. The country’s oldest political party’s definitive trouncing by Phalang Pracharat even in traditional strongholds forced former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign as party leader. 

Such commanding sweeps by Phalang Pracharat warrant careful consideration by opponents of mili¬tary rule. Votes for the pro-junta party reflected the undiminished resentment of a vast segment of the public over the battle between established parties coloured red and yellow that fomented bloody street clashes and brought economic growth to a standstill. Those votes were cast despite the economy gain¬ing little strength in the five years of junta rule, the disappointment offset by the assurance of social stability, even if freedoms had to be curtailed. 

The way the junta re-jigged the electoral system allows the existing order to continue and will almost cer¬tainly see General Prayut returned to the Prime Minister’s Office for anoth¬er four years. The junta gave itself the constitutional power to appoint all 250 Senators, who will vote as a bloc to help decide who occupies that office. Such self-serving tampering with the law of the land undermines any claim Prayut might make to legit¬imacy. His administration might be restored to power, but it cannot be proud of the methodology used. 

He and his supporters can argue that Thailand is still vulnerable to unrest and only they can guide the transition from military discipline to full-fledged democracy. They made little if any progress over these past five years, however, being far too pre¬occupied with perpetuating control over the many by the few. Now, though, the Prayut regime looks like¬ly to have another four years, anoth¬er chance to bring about meaningful change and reform, possibly even starting with the military itself. Prayut and Phalang Pracharat should not take it for granted that citizens voted for them without expectations for a better future.

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