As Thai Elections Approach, Military Is in a Win-Win Situation
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — It appears the Thai military will remain in a powerful position after the country’s scheduled Dec. 23 elections. Chairman Sonthi Boonyaratglin of Thailand’s military junta, the Council for National Security (CNS), announced in September that martial law would continue after the elections.
Martial law was declared in September 2006 after a military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Constitutional Tribunal in May ordered his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, or TRT) Party dissolved for violation of election laws.
There have been hopes that the military would suspend martial law after the new elections restored civilian leadership. However, Zachary Abuza, a U.S. specialist on Southeast Asia who teaches Southeast Asian politics at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, argues that the elections will not be the same type that were enshrined in Thailand’s 1997 “People’s Constitution.”
The new military-crafted constitution and the military-backed political party Rak Chart (Nation Loving) will make that difficult. Though the People’s Power Party, the reincarnation of the TRT, is expected to make a strong showing, the military has incorporated certain safeguards that help guarantee control and autonomy.
The 1997 constitution was abrogated after the coup. The military appointed a legal panel to draft an interim charter that later became the new constitution, approved in a national referendum in August. Drawn up under the military’s supervision, it allows for democratic elections but also allows the military to maintain a strong grip on the electoral process.
The new constitution will reduce political effectiveness and cohesion. It weakens executive authority, reduces the power of individual parties and enhances the power of the military.
“The election will actually look a lot like elections in the late 1980s-2000: lots of small parties, weak coalitions,” Abuza said. “The CNS and the Constitution Drafting Committee [CDC] went to great lengths to ensure that no one can ever garner as much legislative support/power as Thaksin did. The new constitution will weaken political parties while strengthening the military and bureaucracy.”
Abuza warned there are question marks over amendments that have been made to the constitution.
“There are a few things that jump out,” including multiple candidate constituencies, he said. In the 1997 constitution, single constituency meant one member of parliament (MP) per district.
“They say this allowed vote buying by politically powerful and wealthy parties,” he said. “Now [there are] two to three MPs per constituency, which will make it harder — so they say — for any one party’s candidate to dominate the region. It will make vote buying more difficult. Possibly pit party members against one another.”
Another amendment eliminated the 5 percent party list rule, which favored small parties, and removed the 90-day rule that made it hard for MPs to switch parties.
“Previously, Thailand had a very weak party system, so the 1997 constitution tried to strengthen it,” Abuza said. “The CDC says this kept individuals hostage by the TRT.”
The charter also bans the Cabinet from interfering in the work of the bureaucracy and military during their annual personnel reshuffles. Abuza said there is no oversight of personnel by elected officials, and the 160-member Senate is appointed by the king at the recommendation of the Senate Selection Committee.
“The Senate has the power to remove MPs, the president of the constitutional court, Supreme Court and other judges, which basically means you are giving a nonelected body power over an elected body,” he said.
To make matters more favorable for the military, Abuza said, the constitution’s Article 309 gives the military de facto amnesty from all past and present acts, and Article 77 makes it the state’s duty to adequately provide arms.
“In short, the military is consolidating its power,” Abuza said. “The military is getting amnesty. Few elected officials have the temerity to challenge the military over personnel and policies. The military will have a significant share of unelected bodies such as the Senate Selection Committee, etc.”
According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, “The Defense Ministry’s recently increased budget has raised eyebrows as it smacks of opportunism. The ruling generals have not only increased defense spending by 24.3 percent for fiscal 2008, but have also given themselves and immediate subordinates handsome salary raises.”
They also have expanded their “civilian foot soldiers by beefing up the outdated outfit, the Internal Security Operations Command [ISOC], which has received more budget and personnel since the September 2006 coup,” Pongsudhirak said. “The ISOC now numbers several hundred thousand civilians answering to the military, fanned out across the country. ISOC personnel will keep the military preponderant after the election.”
To make matters worse, the military junta has tabled a Cabinet-approved bill to revamp security laws. This National Security Bill, if approved in the military-appointed interim legislature, would give the Army, through the ISOC, disproportionate power over the elected civilian government.
“And the generals have taken over chairmanships of state-enterprise boards,” Pongsudhirak said. “Nepotism within the military for a piece of the pie in the public sector is rife. Military corporate interests are resurgent.”
Despite the military’s power position after the election, sources believe that the United States will lift its ban on military assistance to Bangkok.
“I imagine as soon as elections are held, the [U.S. government] will restore its military assistance and education program,” a $24 million program, Abuza said. “It’s not a lot of money, but at a time when China is courting, it is important. PACOM [the U.S. Pacific Command], of course, hates such sanctions and has been itching to get them lifted or to find work-arounds.”