Thailand's Prime Minister and Head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) Prayut Chan-o-cha announced on August 21 that the country will hold a general election on February 24, 2019 at the earliest. After the Thai King approves relevant laws, the government will ease some restrictions on political parties to let them conduct basic functions and prepare for elections set for early next year, according to the AP. This has attracted widespread attention. In May 2014, the Thai military staged a coup, overthrew the nation's elected government, formed the NCPO and prohibited all political activity. Since Prayut assumed power in 2014, his government has postponed the general election several times. Over the past few years, several political events in Thailand have indeed influenced the country's long-awaited election. The late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej died in October 2016, putting the whole country through a year of mourning. It was thus not appropriate to hold elections during the period. Moreover, the drafting of Thailand's new constitution underwent twists and turns for years until April 2017, when the nation promulgated its 20th Constitution. Before that, it was impossible to hold a general election without relevant laws.
But even if the election date has been announced, some worry that it could get delayed yet again. As far as I am concerned, even if a further delay is possible, it won't be postponed for long, because the political parties, the public and media in the country have been piling pressure on the current government to hold the election. Longer delay will trigger more social instability and weaken support for Prayut. Not only that, according to the current Constitution, an election must be held within 150 days after four election-related laws come into force. It is not legally logical to keep postponing the vote.
The Prayut-led junta government has strong executive powers. But after the election, the new government is bound to be a multi-party coalition, with less stability and efficiency. Given the complicated rules in the new Constitution, the seats in the Lower House of parliament won't be dominated by a single party, but will be taken up by several political parties with checks and balances. This will inevitably lead to fierce confrontation and problems between the Lower House and the government. Who could be the next prime minister? Thailand's former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra will surely be unable to stage a comeback since they are living in exile with criminal charges slapped on them. It is difficult for them to even return to their country, not to mention being re-elected as prime minister, which goes against the Constitution. President of Thailand's Democratic Party and the nation's former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has poor public support.
For the moment, it is widely discussed that Prayut be re-elected as prime minister given his comprehensive abilities. According to an opinion poll by the National Institute of Development Administration in August, 48.96 percent of the respondents said Prayut has performed fairly well as prime minister, 22.15 percent said he did very well and only 9.53 percent said he performed poorly. Although Prayut has been cautious in commenting on the issue, the public thinks he is the best candidate for the position.
After the upcoming election, how will the general situation evolve in Thailand? It is too early to say. But it is hoped that the country can maintain steady development. Media reports said that more than 37 million tourists are expected to visit Thailand this year, including about 10 million from China. In addition, Thailand is supposed to take over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2019. But the episode in which red-shirt anti-government protestors stormed the East Asia Summit in April 2009, which led to death and casualties, may still haunt the international community.
The Thai government will relax curbs on certain political activities. But it is not known when it will allow political parties to participate freely in elections. Whenever there is an election in Thailand, the country comes across corruption, violent attacks and demonstrations. This time, over 10 political parties are vying for an opportunity to gain power. If there is foul play, it could lead to post-election violence.
The author is an associate professor and unit chief of Bay of Bengal Unit, Institute of South Asian, Southeast Asian and Oceania Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. firstname.lastname@example.org