The junta has given the most precise timeline so far, yet remains hazy over lifting the ban on normal political activities
Premier General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s announcement that a general election will take place in November next year is welcome, though there is good reason to doubt it will be his last word on the subject.
The road map to elections is brandished every time the junta chief travels to a democratic country, most notably during trips to the United States and Japan.
He told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during this first visit to Tokyo in February 2015, that Thailand would hold an election by early 2016. The story had changed by September that year, when Prayut made his first visit to the United Nations General Assembly and told then-UN chief Ban Ki-moon that polls were planned for July 2017.
During his trip last week to the United States, Prayut made another pledge, assuring President Donald Trump that the election date would be announced next year.
Their joint statement was more specific about the poll date: “President Trump welcomed Thailand’s commitment to the Roadmap, which upon completion of relevant organic laws as stipulated by the Constitution, will lead toward free and fair elections in 2018.”
The story changed again when Prayut later met with the Thai community in Washington and told them elections should take place in 2019. That pledge contradicted the projections of junta-appointed legislators who were reading from the road map in the new charter.
The ongoing confusion is fuelling hot debate in Thailand over the timeline of the so-called road map to an election, if not full-fledged democracy.
It seems that General Prayut, who led a military coup to topple an elected civilian government in May 2014, enjoys paying lip service to this subject.
His latest declaration on a poll date energised the stock market with what investors saw as positive news for the economy. The Stock Exchange of Thailand index rose 0.87 per cent to close at 1,706.95 on Tuesday.
But while an election would bring the normal conditions on which economic development thrives, it also signals a return to barracks for the ruling military. The top brass, understandably reluctant to retreat from the halls of power, will naturally seek to prolong the inevitable for as long as possible.
Yet observers say Prayut’s latest statement is the junta’s most precise schedule to date, having previously declined to offer a clear election timetable, citing factors including a complicated charter drafting process with amendments, the enactment of complex organic laws and arrangements for HM the late King’s funeral, all of which it said had contributed to changes in the planned date.
The junta has utilised the delay to forge long-term mechanisms to bind future elected administrations, such as the 20-year national strategy, that will perpetuate its hold on Thai politics.
Meanwhile General Prayut’s regular announcements about an election serve as a release for mounting pressure over the military’s extended stay in power, which by modern Thai standards is already long.
The junta anticipates pressure for an election will surge following the Royal Cremation late this month. The official end to a year of mourning will see political parties demand the junta ban on their activities be lifted, as required by the Constitution and organic laws.
Prayut, in turn, has urged the parties to be patient, announcing that restrictions on their activities would be subject to debate. Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan said an appropriate juncture for the recommencing of politics must be carefully considered.
The generals have hinted at a gradual return to political normality in the wake of the Royal Cremation, when parties might be permitted to hold meetings but restrictions on rights such as freedom of assembly and of expression would remain in place.
However, this state of affairs would likely fail the international benchmark for a free and fair election. Announcing a timeline and the lifting the ban on political parties’ activities is not enough to meet that standard. While the rights of ordinary voters continue to be suppressed, no amount of lip service paid by Prayut will succeed in quelling rising pressure for a free election.