Thailand's election will be a resounding victory for the system itself

We do not know exactly who will be prime minister or what coalition will form the government, but we can be sure of King Vajiralongkorn's reign

Voters wait in line under a portrait of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn to cast their ballots at a polling station in Bangkok on March 24, 2019 during Thailand's general election / AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA
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The preliminary results for Thailand’s first general election since the army took over in 2014 are in, and it is looking like a huge disappointment for Pheu Thai, the party associated with the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr Thaksin and his proxies have won every election since he first came to power in 2001, before being displaced by army-led coups. The hope this time was that they would win a large majority of the 500 MPs in the Lower House, which would in the eyes of many translate into the return of real democracy to Thailand.

The final results of Sunday’s vote may not be known for some time, but it is looking at the moment as though the Palang Pracharat party of the current prime minister, the military junta leader General Prayut Chanocha, may have won around the same as Pheu Thai. The allegations of a stitch-up have predictably been flying thick and fast. The prime minister needs to command a majority of both houses of parliament combined. Given that the 250-member upper house is certain to be filled with pro-military nominees, Mr Prayut only needs the support of 126 MPs to remain in office. Preliminary results show his party has not yet passed that mark, but may do so once remaining seats are allocated or with the support of smaller parties.

That is unfair, cry Thaksin's supporters. They mention the recent banning of their ally the Thai Raksa Chart party, which caused a brief kerfuffle after it nominated the king's sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya, as its prime ministerial candidate – only for the monarch to slap the suggestion down and for the party to find itself promptly dissolved. Other politicians have been subject to malicious charges, they say, while freedom of speech has been drastically curtailed

Claims of cheating or malpractice by the Election Commission are trending on Twitter in Thailand, while a spokesperson for Future Forward, a new party that has done very well, said there were “obviously irregularities” because the numbers “don’t add up”

If the generals have won, it is alleged, it is only because the deck has been so stacked in their favour. Anticipating this result, The Economist declared that it would be "a travesty of democracy in a country that was once an inspiration for south-east Asia".

Well hold on, I say, and on several fronts. It may be true that the Prayut administration has proved lacklustre in terms of the economy and has done nothing to stop Thailand “winning” its latest title – that of the most unequal country in the world, in which the top one per cent hold 67 per cent of the wealth. Neither could even his greatest admirers claim that Mr Prayut’s record on civil liberties was anything to boast about. (He has “joked” about his power to execute journalists.)

If the generals have won, it is alleged, it is only because the deck has been so stacked in their favour

But many commentators seem to be viewing the records of Thaksin-linked administrations with rose-tinted glasses. There have, for instance, long been serious questions about his personal integrity. Before the US academic Tom Plate went to interview him for his 2011 book Conversations with Thaksin, a colleague warned him: "He's the most corrupt PM in Thailand's history. You'll lose all credibility if you do a book on him."

His crackdown on the insurgency in Thailand’s Muslim south was widely condemned – especially after 84 demonstrators suffocated or were crushed to death in 2004 after being packed into army trucks.

It may not have been fair that his sister Yingluck, who came to power in 2011, was sentenced to five years' jail in absentia in 2017 (she left the country just before the verdict), but the rice subsidy programme, over which she was charged was a disaster that cost the government up to $20 billion. Critics say that the promises she made to farmers in relation to the programme helped her win the 2011 election; thus the argument is that Thaksin and his allies are not real democrats at all, because they effectively bribe the poor for their votes.

Lastly, the idea that Thai democracy was ever an “inspiration” for south-east Asia is either an attempt at humour or a statement of outstanding ignorance. This is a country that has had 12 successful coups since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932, and in which the armed forces have always had an outsized role. A former Thai ambassador, Pithaya Pookaman, has written that that transition – which curtailed the monarch’s previously absolute power, and which was led by the army – “unwittingly institutionalised the military establishment as the vanguard for future coups d’etat, with the acquiescence of the bureaucrats and the oligarchs, and often with the backing of the urban middle class and big business”.

The really significant change in the decades since 1932 has been less the consolidation of democracy, which has always been shaky, and more the growth in the influence of the monarchy. The elevation of the king to a near-god-like status with major, if rarely openly used, powers, was achieved under King Bhumibol's seven decades on the throne. When his son, King Vajiralongkorn, succeeded him in 2016, some questioned whether that mystique would transfer to him. It is still not clear, as Thailand has such strict lese-majeste laws that even mild criticism is risky. But while we do not know exactly who will be prime minister and what coalition will form the government after the election, we do know for certain that the king's coronation will be held at the beginning of May.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward party whose emergence has eclipsed the venerable Democrats – whose leader, the former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, resigned after their disastrous showing – put it prudently in an interview with the New York Times yesterday. He said that the generals "wrote the constitution, regulated the elections and are the players within their own game". But he said that his party "is willing to play by their game".

He recognises the victors. For it seems that it is “the system” that has won – for now, at least.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum