Free and Fair? Dissolution of Party Adds to Thai Election Doubts

(Bloomberg) -- The dissolution of a Thai political party that opposed military rule is fueling doubts over whether the country’s first election since a coup in 2014 will be free and fair.

A court on Thursday ordered the break up of Thai Raksa Chart, a party linked to exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, for hostility to the constitutional monarchy. Its removal hurts the poll strategy devised by Thaksin’s supporters, and may boost the Thai junta leader’s push to return as prime minister.

Thaksin or his allies have won every election since 2001, only to be unseated by the courts or armed forces in a long tussle for power with the military and royalist elite. The junta that took over almost five years ago cracked down on his supporters, stepped up oversight of criticism both online and offline and put in place a constitution that opponents say will stifle elected politicians.

"This is an attempt by the old elites to maintain power they grabbed in the 2014 coup," said Prajak Kongkirati, head of the government and politics department at Thammasat University in Bangkok. "The whole game plan is to make sure they don’t lose in the election because it’ll be a tough job to win without this system in place."

Election Commission

Weerachon Sukhontapatipak, a military government spokesman, said any concerns about electoral fairness should be relayed to the Election Commission. The dissolution case was brought to the court by that agency.

"The government isn’t the one in charge of the elections, the Election Commission is," he said.

In December last year, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Thailand has enough experience as a democratic nation to hold free and fair elections.

Thai Raksa Chart stunned the nation on Feb. 8 by selecting Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya as its prime ministerial candidate, a step some observers at the time said instantly made the party the front-runner in a nation where the royal family is officially treated as semi-divine.

The nomination rapidly unraveled when, just hours later, her brother King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a rare, publicly broadcast royal command said the spirit of the constitution prevents top royals from holding political office.

Electoral System

The Constitutional Court subsequently accepted the case from the Election Commission seeking Thai Raksa Chart’s break up. The party said the nomination of the princess was based on good intentions and done with her permission.

Commenting on Instagram on Thursday, the princess described the dissolution as a "sad and depressing thing."

Thai Raksa Chart was relaunched last year to take advantage of an electoral system in the military-backed constitution that favors smaller parties.

It was an offshoot of the key Thaksin-linked outfit, Pheu Thai, which is thought to retain popular support in the poor, rural north and northeast. Together, Thai Raksa Chart and Pheu Thai would probably have given the Thaksin alliance a larger footprint in the 500-member lower house.

Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the leader of the military government, is seeking to return as premier with the help of a junta-appointed 250-seat Senate. A candidate needs a majority in a joint vote of both chambers to become prime minister.

‘Predetermined’

"This is an election that is predetermined to a large extent by what has been designed in the constitution," said Chaturon Chaisang, who was a prominent Pheu Thai member before becoming campaign strategist for Thai Raksa Chart. "They are taking advantage of all of the authority and power they have over the political parties and politicians in the contest."

Other opponents of the military government also face legal cases, such as tycoon-turned-politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the upstart Future Forward party.

The attorney general’s office said last week it’s considering whether to indict Thanathorn for allegedly spreading false information online and so breaching the Computer Crimes Act. Thanathorn has denied the claims and said the authorities are trying to muzzle critics.

The charges against him for online commentary criticizing the junta are an example of unfair curbs on free speech, according to Human Rights Watch.

"The run up isn’t fair at all, given the actions against Future Forward and Thai Raksa Chart," said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Parties linked to Thaksin have been dissolved in the past, leading to bloody street clashes. Another bout of instability on the streets, or in the next administration, could hamper efforts to bolster investment in Thailand, whose economic growth rate lags behind Southeast Asian neighbors.

"The incident on Feb. 8 is a political earthquake that has changed Thai politics forever," said Thammasat University’s Prajak. "There will be more aftershocks that follow."

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.