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Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Ethnic Thai
Job Thai Political Scientist
  Professor of Political Science
Desc Thitinan Pongsudhirak is democracy activist and political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University


Teaching Chulalongkorn University
Org Institute of Security and International Studies

2018 05 09 Publish

A new election date, set for February 2019, now appears problematic - enabling laws named in the 2017 charter are currently being contested in the Constitutional Court on technical grounds. In short, the convoluted charade underpinning Thai politics suggests that the ruling generals who staged the coup in 2014 want to hang on to power for as long as possible

For Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government and its junta backer, the National Council for Peace and Order, the pre-election game plan is clear: no election until a victory is assured. This means manipulating the rules, securing favourable judges, keeping opponents down and fragmented, enticing the electorate with government expenditure, suppressing dissent and delaying the polls

The military-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee has come up with a charter that will keep elected political parties weak and small. For good measure, the 250-member Senate will be appointed entirely under the junta’s purview, representing a mandated one-third military quota in the Parliament - higher than Myanmar’s one quarter

The Constitution also allows an individual who is not a member of parliament to become prime minister if no clear candidate in the lower house emerges. This clause is seen by the public as designated specifically for General Prayut

The main supposedly independent agencies - the Election Commission, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Constitutional Court - are run by junta loyalists

Pheu Thai has been dissolved twice in its previous incarnations and its current line-up is embroiled in legal entanglements that could lead to another party dismantlement. Having been overthrown twice by military coups, its leaders Thaksin Shinawatra and sister Yingluck live in self-imposed exile while facing criminal sentences back home

Internally split, the Democrat Party has pitted party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva - who is adamantly against granting a parliamentary ‘outsider’ access to the prime ministership - against former party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the street protests in 2013-14 that paved the way for the coup and is a staunch Prayut supporter

To gain electoral support, the Prayut government last January announced a 150 billion baht (US$4.7 billion) ‘mid-year’ budget addition targeting ‘farm sector reform’ ahead of the 2019 fiscal year budget. This program is estimated to be worth more than 3 trillion baht (US$94.5 billion) in total and is to begin in October 2018. With such budget outlays in store, it would only make sense for the military regime to hold the election in the first quarter of next year or soon after.

As popular disenchantment grows in line with increasingly obvious government corruption - notably the public outrage over the expensive watches worn by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan - the ruling generals have maintained the ban on public assembly and activities by political parties. A gathering of five or more people is still technically illegal. At the same time, General Prayut still holds absolute power under Article 44 of the interim Constitution. Article 44 is effectively rule-by-decree and is without checks and accountability.

Until favourable conditions ensure post-election power for the junta, delaying tactics are buying time. The enabling laws to organise the election, for example, are collectively determined by the Constitution Drafting Committee and the National Legislative Assembly. Both, along with the cabinet, are junta appointed. If the junta decides it wants an election sooner rather than later, these bodies can be expeditious

Manipulating the electoral landscape is necessary but not sufficient for the military government’s political success. It must also get down and dirty by dealing directly with Thailand’s political patronage networks. In recent months, General Prayut has met with former politicians in Sukhothai, Chonburi, Supanburi and Nakhon Pathom provinces. In these and other enclaves, provincial bosses reign because the state and its bureaucrats have failed to address popular grievances

In the months ahead, the junta will likely co-opt and poach established politicians from other parties, including Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party. In a blatant conflict of interest, the government has hinted at forming a political party to back General Prayut for the prime ministership. If formed, such a party could avoid criticism for electing a leader from outside the Parliament

The prospect of a post-election government led again by the junta and General Prayut does away with any pretence that this was a caretaker administration to land Thailand in a lasting democratic space. It would be more like an old-style power grab by all means necessary

2018 09 04 Publish: Thai politics under a new reign

The junta will use all means available to contest and win the next election. Its efforts will be reinforced by a constitution that designates one-third of the legislative assembly to military appointments. Consequently, Thailand is likely to be under long-term military supervision.

Although the country’s economy can still expand at a subpar 3-4 per cent rate for the foreseeable future, Thai politics will remain unsettled, unbalanced and inherently unstable. Stuck at a political standstill characterised by polarisation and conflict since 2005, Thailand risks stagnation if it cannot navigate a way out over the next 2-3 years

From 1947 to 1997, the Thai economy expanded phenomenally at about 7 per cent per year. Over this nation-building period, in the thick of its Cold War fight against communist expansionism, Thailand’s political order came into place. The regime revolves around the military-monarchy symbiotic relationship, flanked by a civilian bureaucracy fanning out across the country

Despite elections and political parties that came and went, the trinity of military, monarchy and bureaucracy called the shots in Thailand until it was challenged over the past two decades

Prior to the 1997-98 economic crisis, Thailand’s socio-political foundations were transformed. People had more means, education and information from media proliferation and broader exposure to the outside world. The boom before the economic crisis culminated in unprecedented political reforms, capped by the 1997 constitution that promoted greater political transparency, accountability and stability

Thaksin Shinawatra, an ambitious telecommunications magnate, was uniquely positioned to capitalise on post-crisis recovery and the post-1997 new politics. Thaksin drew upon a network of police and military classmates and associates that accumulated new wealth from stock market growth and global finance

The anti-Thaksin yellow-clad columns are beneficiaries of the former era - not ignorant of the 21st century but insistent on entering it under their own terms. The pro-Thaksin red shirts, on the other hand, are an awakened 21st-century movement. They want to move beyond the old order as beneficiaries of Thaksin’s policy agenda

This is the context of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s rise after the long reign of his father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The monarch in Thailand has traditionally been considered the final arbiter and broker of power in times of crisis and debilitating impasse. But that modality was specific to and personalised by King Bhumibol and his earned moral authority as a unifying and rallying symbol for the country. A new monarch with an old traditional monarchy is uncharted waters for Thailand

If the old order prevails via military-authoritarianism, underpinned by a manipulated constitution, then a military-led coalition government is likely when the election eventually takes place. The government would likely be spearheaded by the pro-military Pracharat party, smaller parliamentary allies and the junta-appointed senate. In this scenario, the political space would be more open but ultimately the traditional trinity of institutions would be in charge

Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party and new banners such as Anakot Mai (Future Forward) appear set to be in opposition after the election. Constitutional rules favour smaller parties at the expense of bigger competitors. Factions of Pheu Thai have been induced to join the Pracharat party. Monitoring agencies, such as the election and anti-corruption commissions, are dominated by junta loyalists. The Democrat party, which has not won an election since 1992, is now split between those in favour of the junta and others who are sceptical. This party is unlikely to lead the post-election government, although it could play a kingmaker role if it cuts a deal with the junta

If authoritarianism prevails, tensions will likely build towards confrontation. Thailand’s civil society is seasoned and broad-based, while the economy is diverse, complex and sophisticated, meaning political repression cannot be easily exchanged for growth and better standards of living

2019 03 21 retrieve

Thailand is stuck with a lacklustre military-authoritarian government under prime minister and junta leader Prayut Chan-ocha, unable to make a break for an effective democratic future

[Thais will be voting for the 500-seat lower house of parliament, while the 250-member upper house, or Senate, will be chosen entirely by the military. The whole 750-seat parliament will then vote for the prime minister] These manipulated maneuvers are built into the constitution with the aim of maintaining military lordship over civilian leaders

[After the military lifted a ban on political campaigning in December, a host of smaller parties appeared, including Pheu Dharmma and Thai Raksa Chart, with many Pheu Thai members joining their ranks. Analysts see these so-called defections as a tactic to get around new charter rules that disadvantage big parties] Together, these three Thaksin-aligned parties are the leading contender to come out as the largest-winning bloc after the poll, but probably not large enough to form a coalition government

2019 03 22 Retrieve

The rules have been written to maintain military supervision over Thai politics

Nothing is straightforward in this election. I think there’ll be a lot of controversies [even before the final election results are announced]

2019 03 24 Publish

[Thaksin was photographed in recent days with the Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya at his daughter’s wedding in Hong Kong. Thaksin’s appearance with the princess ‘backfired’] The last hours of the polls mattered a lot, especially the statement of the palace citing King Rama IX’s words about choosing good people. That was a big last-minute boost for the Palang Pracharath party

2019 03 29 Retrieve

Anutin Charnvirakul is not a tarnished good. He is not involved in all this political conflict over the past 15 years; he is relatively unscathed

2019 06 05 Publish

[The Thai Election Commission changed a seat distribution formula after the March 2019 poll for the 500-member lower house, effectively reversing a projected majority for the anti-junta Democratic Front] The new script has the rules in the junta’s favor… and the referees are also on their side to keep them in power. [but] With the rules that they had shaped in their favor … even then they did not do that well

2019 06 14 Retrieve

[Thitinan Pongsudhirak talks about the binary politics of past election cycles] Not only has the divide not been narrowed over the last five years, there have been new fronts. And one new battle line is generational. A lot of young people are speaking out, showing that they are fed up. So before, you [had] yellows and reds, 10 years ago, but the issues of youth and younger voices were not accentuated. Now they are

But going forward, there will still be a lot of tension, because the election … while it provided some release, it did not really satisfy a majority of the electorate because the rules, the Constitution, is crooked. So tension could mount. Unrest down the road, like in the last 15 years, is possible, but I think we’re still some way from that.

2019 07 16 Retrieve

[Prayuth Chan-ocha led cabinet] dominated by patronage politics and paybacks. [including at least two members with questionable reputations who were recruited for their abilities to turn out the vote] The unsavory few who have had a shady and criminalized past are surprising because they will be a lightning rod on the Prayuth government’s credibility. It suggests that Prayuth has paid a high price for luring old-style politicians and influential figures into his party and Cabinet