The Military Wins Big in Thailand

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends the coronation procession for King Vajiralongkorn in May 2019. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Prayuth Chan-ocha led the 2014 military coup and will now lead the country as civilian prime minister after this week’s parliamentary vote. But the military will still dominate politics.

June 5, 2019

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends the coronation procession for King Vajiralongkorn in May 2019. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

After Thai voters cast their ballots in the country’s first election since a military coup in 2014, the parliament selected a prime minister this week. CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick assesses what Thailand’s future holds under the general who led the coup five years ago.

What do the results indicate about support for the military?

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Prayuth Chan-ocha, the retired general who has been leading the country since the 2014 coup, was chosen as the country’s civilian prime minister after winning the support of enough lawmakers in the National Assembly. He defeated his only opponent, Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, by a vote of 500 to 244.

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Prayuth’s victory was all but guaranteed. The military and its allies made certain of that by announcing criminal charges against opposition leaders and overseeing an unusual interpretation of electoral laws that helped the pro-military party gain the most seats possible. Prayuth essentially remains in power, with the military firmly behind him, and his unwieldy coalition will likely now have more than the 250 seats needed in the lower house to pass legislation.

But the parliamentary vote does not indicate overwhelming popular support for the military and its main party, Palang Pracharath. To be sure, Palang Pracharath earned the most votes of any one party during the March election, but the anti-junta opposition coalition earned more votes overall. It probably would have won more than 250 seats in the lower house, if not for the Thai election commission’s dubious reading of electoral laws.

Will Prayuth succeed at leading a civilian government?

It seems unlikely. The military has been in complete control since the 2014 coup, and it has done little to address many challenges, including an insurgency in southern Thailand, severe problems in the education system, vast economic inequality, and the country’s waning economic competitiveness—not to mention widespread repression by the military itself.

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It is not inconceivable that the military could stage another coup and retake total control of politics.

Now Prayuth, who is thin-skinned in dealing with public criticism, will have to operate in a more politically open environment. Before the vote for prime minister, he declined to present a platform of any kind. And in parliament, the unified opposition—convinced that the election was stolen from them—will likely work to stymie Prayuth, defeat legislation, and try to investigate the military. With Prayuth facing challenges from parliament, it is not inconceivable that the military could stage another coup and retake total control of politics.

What will happen to Thanathorn and Future Forward?

It is difficult to say, but the history of how the military and its allies have dealt with opposition parties does not give much reason for optimism. Many powerful opposition leaders have in the past faced charges, long bans from politics, and other means of keeping them on the sidelines.

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Elections and Voting

Southeast Asia

Thanathorn faces questionable charges of cybercrime and sedition, and he could wind up with jail time and an extended ban from politics. But the fact that Future Forward performed surprisingly well in its first election suggests there is strong, pent-up demand among Thai voters for politicians neither allied with the military nor linked to the Shinawatra family, which had dominated politics for years.

Was this a vote between dictatorship and democracy, as Thanathorn said earlier this week?

I would not put it so starkly—at least regarding the vote itself. The vote in parliament was a pro forma cap on the period since the 2014 coup, during which the military rolled back aspects of democracy and reentrenched military domination of politics. Now military leaders have created a kind of managed democracy in which the armed forces—and the Thai palace—will remain the central actors no matter what. The vote itself was the cherry on top of that whole process. King Vajiralongkorn also appears to be taking more power over politics, the military, and the economy.

How will this affect Thailand’s relationship with other ASEAN countries and the United States?

The selection of Prayuth as prime minister likely will not affect Thailand’s relations with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Most other ASEAN leaders are loath to be seen as meddling in other regional states’ internal politics and they were not vocal about the military’s rule of Thailand or the unfairness of the election process.

For the United States, Prayuth’s selection will probably allow it to fully embrace Thailand once again. Washington has already tried to reset ties with Bangkok, with President Donald J. Trump welcoming Prayuth to the White House in 2017. (Prayuth met with President Barack Obama, but only as part of a U.S.-ASEAN summit in 2016.) Now, with Prayuth as civilian prime minister, the White House will likely end remaining limits on military-to-military relations with Thailand in place since 2014. Congress, which historically has focused on human rights in Southeast Asia, will continue to keep a close watch on rights abuses.

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