What a Coup for Thailand’s Junta

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To skeptics, Sunday’s Thai election was yet another military coup, though carried out with ballots rather than bullets. A more hopeful assessment is that the Southeast Asian nation is finally taking politics out of the streets and to where it belongs: parliament.

Both views have merits. 

General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who seized power five years ago, is poised to retain it – as an elected leader. The pro-army Palang Pracharath won 7.7 million votes with 94 percent counted, according to unofficial results posted on the Election Commission’s Facebook page. The country’s largest party, the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai, was pushed into second place with 7.23 million votes. It’s the first electoral defeat for the pro-Thaksin camp since 2001.

But then, the dice were loaded. In theory, Prayuth requires only 126 out of the 500 lower-house seats because the 250 junta-appointed senators in the upper house have been given an equal say in selecting the next prime minister. By contrast, the pro-Thaksin camp needs 376 seats in the lower house for an overall simple majority (out of 750). New rules of proportional representation are a further complication. A similar vote share as in 2011 would still have left Pheu Thai poorer by 41 seats, according to the Bangkok Post, benefiting regional groups such as the Bhum Jai Thai Party. Promising full legalization of marijuana, Bhum Jai Thai did better than the Democrat Party of former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who quit as leader after its poor showing.

Ever since Thaksin’s 2001 rise, a royalist Bangkok elite has been trying to banish the influence of the cop-turned-businessman-turned-politician from Thai politics. The recent disbandment of a pro-Thaksin party for disrespecting the constitutional monarchy by picking a princess as its prime ministerial candidate shows the determination to keep him out. Yet Thaksin, who went into exile after being deposed in a 2006 coup and was later convicted for corruption, remains popular, particularly in the underdeveloped northeast. His village-fund program is still lauded for trying to bridge the resource gap with the region around the capital.

Some things have changed, though. The junta appears more willing to give a voice to less-developed regions as long as there’s no repeat of the extreme populism of Thaksin or his sister. Elected as prime minister in 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra’s purchase of grain from farmers at above-market prices diminished the export competitiveness of Thai rice and amassed a fiscal burden. After her 2014 ouster, a court sentenced Yingluck to a jail term for negligence in the rice-subsidy program. She avoided prison by fleeing the country.

Thaksinomics may be dead, but regional disparities are not. To the southwest of Bangkok, tourism flourishes in Krabi, even as in neighbouring Trang, rubber planters have been hurt by the end of the Chinese commodity boom. Prices are down two-thirds from early 2011. The area was a longtime stronghold for the Democrat Party, whose defeat may see more lawmakers from smaller parties bring local concerns to parliament. “Rather than political atomization,” writes Michael J. Montesano, a researcher at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, this has “the potential to deliver a new form of national integration.”

The past decade has been marked by violent clashes between Thaksin’s red-shirt supporters and yellow-shirt liberal democrats. Adding more colors to the palette won’t be an unwelcome fragmentation. Investors will win if Sunday’s election cuts the risk of future coups. With the military consolidating its control on civilian affairs, there may be less need for it to hit the reset button repeatedly. 

All depends on whether Sunday’s election can provide a durable democracy, if not a stable government. Military rule didn’t stop billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi from making deals. His food-and-beverage empire across Southeast Asia is now supported by the stakes he acquired in Thai retailer Big C Supercenter Pcl and Metro AG's Cash & Carry business in Vietnam. But when it comes to startups, the region’s second-biggest economy is lagging badly behind neighboring Indonesia. With a population of 69 million, the Thai market isn’t too small to spawn its own unicorns. 

Finally, lawmakers who get elected on local issues will try to win fiscal concessions for their provinces, whose own sources of revenue are often pitiful. But the movers and shakers in Bangkok are already worried about the impact of population aging on national debt. Besides, global demand is weak. Thai auto exports slumped 12.6 percent from a year earlier in the first two months, and this when the country has made a 1.7 trillion baht ($54 billion) bet on turning its eastern seaboard into a global manufacturing powerhouse.

Even as that gamble takes time to pay off, compromise solutions are needed. Recently, Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to allow medical cannabis. Hard-up rubber farmers won’t have failed to notice Bhum Jai Thai’s poll promise: “Vote for us and we’ll let you plant marijuana freely.” Neither will traders in the Thai baht, Asia’s best-performing currency since the end of 2015, have ignored the whiff of more dollar earnings for Thailand.

Prayuth can be satisfied with the verdict delivered by Thai voters. Plenty of hard work still lies ahead.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. He previously was a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.

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