Thailand's Road to Election Keeps Getting Longer: QuickTake Q&A

Thailand has endured about a dozen military coups since putting an end to absolute monarchy in 1932. The current stretch of army rule has been the longest since the early 1970s, and there are few signs it will end anytime soon. Junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power in 2014 and the timetable for elections has been repeatedly pushed back.

1. So when will Thailand get to vote again?

It’s unclear. After voters approved Thailand’s 20th constitution in a referendum in August, Prayuth -- who is also the prime minister -- reaffirmed his commitment for elections by the end of 2017. Yet a delay in promulgating the constitution has raised doubts. Lawmakers say early next year is more likely, while a spokesman for the junta floated the possibility of September 2018.

2. What’s the hold-up?

King Maha Vajiralongkorn asked for changes to the constitution following the death of his father in October, a process that takes months. Lawmakers would then have to pass legislation to implement provisions concerning elections and political parties. Even so, there’s nothing stopping the government moving faster: After the 2006 coup, the junta drafted a new constitution and held a fresh election within 16 months.

3. What’s different in the new constitution?

The 279-section constitution, written by a junta-picked committee, allows for a non-elected prime minister, turns the senate into a fully appointed body, and grants extra power to the courts. It also lists detailed policy guidelines and requires future governments to adhere to its 20-year development plan. Supporters say it tackles graft and promotes stability. Critics argue it raises the prospect of further clashes by entrenching military rule.

4. Why did the military take power in 2014?

It was the culmination of nearly a decade-long effort by Thailand’s royalist elite to curb the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family, whose allies have won the past five elections. Thaksin’s opponents have struggled for years to break his grip over the poorer and more populous northeast region, where voters have rewarded him for boosting crop prices and providing cheap health care. Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy remains divided across regional and class lines.

5. Can Thaksin’s political movement regain power?

Although Thaksin hasn’t set foot in Thailand for almost a decade, the billionaire’s influence endures. He enjoys a loyal following among his red-shirt supporters, particularly in the farming heartlands, despite efforts by the military to repress free speech. The junta has taken action against Thaksin and his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was hit with a $1 billion fine last year over allegations of criminal negligence related to her signature policy of purchasing rice from farmers at above-market rates.

More recently, the junta reopened a nearly decade-old tax case against Thaksin and accused his supporters of plotting to kill Prayuth. The bottom line: Even if an election is held and Thaksin’s allies win, the constitution gives appointed bureaucrats, soldiers and judges enough power to block any moves they don’t like by elected politicians.

6. Has the political disarray affected the economy?

Thailand’s growth has averaged 3.3 percent per year over the past decade, lagging peers in a region with some of Asia’s fastest-growing economies. While falling commodities prices, faltering export growth and weak global demand have contributed to the slowdown, companies are increasingly looking elsewhere in the region.

Foreign direct investment into Thailand lagged Indonesia and Malaysia in 2014 and 2015, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The World Bank said on March 13 that Thailand can revive growth through improving infrastructure, increasing competition through free-trade agreements and investing more in the bottom 40 percent of the population to boost productivity.

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