Thai Elections a Step Closer as King Endorses New Charter

  • Constitution indicates vote likely to take place in late 2018
  • Latest charter empowers ‘old elites’ over elected politicians

A man unloads portraits of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn ratified a military-backed constitution in a televised ceremony in Bangkok on Thursday, paving the way for an election in late 2018.

“Let the Thai people be united in complying with and protecting the constitution of Thailand to maintain the democratic system and sovereignty,” Vajiralongkorn said in a statement read by a palace official after the signing ceremony.

Prayuth Chan-Ocha

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

The promulgation of Thailand’s 20th charter had been delayed after the king requested changes following the death of his father in October. It allows the return of some form of representative democracy after the military seized power in a 2014 coup that deposed former leader Yingluck Shinawatra.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said everything was in line regarding the road map to the next election. “The government cannot set the exact date of the elections because it is not yet possible to predetermine the beginning dates of each successive event,” Prayuth said in a speech after the promulgation Thursday.

The new constitution enhances the power of appointed soldiers, judges and bureaucrats to block moves by elected politicians, the culmination of a decade-long fight by the royalist establishment to curb the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Allies of the exiled billionaire who introduced cheap health care and bolstered price support for farmers have won the past five elections, only to be ousted by either the courts or military.

Foreign investors have been pouring money back into Thailand as political risk seems minimal now, Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. strategists including Marc Chandler wrote in research note received on April 5. About $3.4 billion has poured into Thai stocks and bonds so far in 2017, contributing to a climb of about 3.6 percent in the baht against the dollar in the same period.

Read more about Thailand’s long road to an election

“The constitution basically guarantees a controlling stake for the military in any future governments, as the entire 250-seat Senate will be appointed by the military,” Chandler said. “As such, we see very little in the way of policy shifts under the incoming government.”

Approved by Thai voters in a referendum last August, the constitution outlines the path back to an election once its formally promulgated. Meechai Ruchupan, head of the junta’s constitutional drafting committee who served the same role after a 1991 coup, told reporters this week that an election would be held in about 19 months.

The drafting committee will have eight months to draft 10 so-called organic laws governing the new political system. The National Legislative Assembly will then have two months to consider those laws, with Vajiralongkorn having another three months to sign off. Fresh elections must be held within five months of the organic laws taking effect.

Cremation, Coronation

The promulgation signals that the election will likely take place in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit. The timing also hinges on the royal cremation of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the formal coronation of Vajiralongkorn, he said.

“The constitution reflects the power structure among Thai elites more than anything else," Kan said. “Old elites and bureaucrats” are trying to decrease the political power of politicians, and gain more power for themselves, he said.

Yingluck, the former prime minister, said the Thai people were looking forward to a normal situation with an elected government in an interview posted Wednesday on the Facebook page of publisher Khaosod English. She was hit with a $1 billion fine last year over allegations of criminal negligence related to her signature rice-purchasing policy.

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