(Bloomberg) — Thailand has endured many military coups since ending its absolute monarchy in 1932. The current stretch of army rule has been the longest since the early 1970s; junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power in 2014 and repeatedly postponed elections. The latest date is March 24, and this time the regime looks determined to stick to it (barring another outbreak of street protests). The first vote under a rewritten constitution doesn’t exactly presage a restoration of full democracy and civilian rule, however. The military will retain a decisive role in government, potentially leading to political gridlock and maybe even fresh unrest. A Thai princess’s brief entry and exit as a prime ministerial candidate only added to the intrigue.
1. Why did the military take over?
It was the culmination of nearly a decade-long effort by Thailand’s urban establishment and royalist elite to curb the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire who was first elected in 2001 on a populist platform and ousted by a coup less than six years later. Although Thaksin hasn’t set foot in Thailand since 2008, he retains a loyal following particularly in the farming heartlands, where voters credit him with boosting crop prices and providing cheap health care. Detractors accuse him and his allies of vote-buying, fiscal recklessness and failing to do enough to tackle corruption. Thaksin’s sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, fled the country in 2017 rather than face jail in a criminal case related to a costly policy of buying rice from farmers at above-market rates. More recently, the junta reopened an old tax case against Thaksin and accused supporters of his “red-shirt” movement of plotting to kill Prayuth.
2. What are Thais voting for now?
The 500-seat lower house of parliament. That’s the only popularly elected body under the constitution drafted by the junta and approved by voters in 2016. The 250-member upper house, or Senate, will comprise junta appointees and military brass. The generals also have another lever to wield. In a typical parliamentary democracy, the leader of the party with the most seats in the lower house is tapped to head the government. In Thailand, any party that crosses the 5 percent threshold can nominate a candidate — and members of both chambers get to vote. So a junta-backed candidate theoretically could sweep the Senate and then need just 126 votes in the lower house to make it to 376.
Among many parties, the two biggest are Pheu Thai, rooted in the poor, rural regions in the north and northeast, and Democrat, which is strong among conservatives and royalists in the south and in Bangkok. Two brand-new parties are expected to win some seats: Future Forward, led by another tycoon-turned-politician, is critical of the junta and could align itself with Pheu Thai, which is pro-Thaksin. The other, Palang Pracharath, is led by four cabinet ministers in the current regime. It nominated Prayuth as its candidate for prime minister, the role he currently holds. Meanwhile, another party linked to Thaksin, Thai Raksa Chart, stunned the country by nominating Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its candidate for prime minister, drawing quick public opposition from King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The Election Commission officially dropped her name from the list of candidates days later.
4. So what kind of outcome is expected?
The lower house will probably be divided into two camps, one against any military involvement in government, and the other pro-junta, anti-Thaksin. These alliances represent the regional and class divides that persist in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy (after Indonesia). If the junta leader returns as a prime minister but his coalition lacks a majority in the lower house, it could be difficult for his government to pass a budget or any other legislation.
5. What if Thaksin’s allies form a government?
They could be stymied by the Senate, which can block legislation. In addition, the new constitution obliges future governments to adhere to the regime’s 20-year development plan, which took effect in October and covers national security, equality, development and other areas. Supporters say the plan will prevent graft and promote stability. Critics argue it further entrenches military rule. The bottom line: The new constitution gives appointed bureaucrats, soldiers and judges enough power to block any moves they don’t like.
That sort of gridlock between the military and civilians could lead to the kind of street protests that preceded the recent coups. The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 after a 70-year reign, used his moral authority at times to resolve political crises. His son, the new king, will be crowned in early May.
7. Has the economy been affected?
It hasn’t helped. Over the past decade of tangled politics, Thailand’s growth averaged 3 percent annually, well behind neighbors such as Indonesia and Vietnam. That compares with almost 4 percent over the preceding 10 years. The economy slowed sharply in 2014 around the political unrest and coup, and it remains to be seen whether the upcoming election inspires investor confidence or revives memories of instability.