The Dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart: What Happened?
Thai Raksa Chart has been officially dissolved by the Thai Constitutional Court, one month after it nominated Princess Ubolratana Mahidol as their candidate for Prime Minister in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Despite the Princess relinquishing her royal title in 1972, the King Maha Vajiralongkorn barred his older sister from running in the election calling it ‘inappropriate’ for a member of the royal family to become involved in politics. Following this, the Election Commission asked the Court to dissolve the Thai Raksa Chart because their actions undermined the constitutional monarchy. As a result of last week’s ruling, the party’s executive board members have been banned from politics for the next 10 years. The following is a background on Thai politics and an analysis on the disbandment of Thai Raksa Chart.
Thai Raksa Chart (hereafter called TRC) is an off-shoot of the Pheu Thai Party, the current main opposition party. Conceived in 2009, it has undergone a series of name changes before finally resting on the Thai Raksa Chart in late 2018. Along with Pheu Thai it is allied with Thaksin Shinawatra: one of the most popular but divisive prime ministers in Thailand.
The tycoon-turned-politician quickly rose to fame out of the embers of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. His policies of cheap healthcare and agricultural subsidies made him popular amongst the rural electorate and urban based working class and resulted in a landslide victory in 2001. However, by 2006 he faced a severe legitimacy crisis from the Bangkok middle class and political elite. The mounting allegations of corruption and electoral fraud along with his heavy-handed reaction to the declining situation in the Deep South led to his removal in a military led coup in September of 2006. Since then, pro-Thaksin parties in various guises are routinely elected and subsequently ousted by the army and political elites. The Constitutional Court has played a significant role in attempting to banish the former prime minister’s influence in politics. The Thai Rak Thai Party, Thaksin’s first political party, was dissolved in 2007 for violating election laws. The People’s Power Party, members of which were from Thai Rak Thai was found guilty of vote-buying in 2008 and subsequently disbanded. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, was elected prime minister from 2011 to 2014 but deposed following impeachment by the Constitutional Court.
Thailand is an ideologically polarised state. In one camp are the conservative, nationalist and royalist groups that are made up of the rich middle-class and military elite, known as the yellow shirts. In the other are the red shirts; supporters of Thaksin and those who oppose the urban and military elite’s domination in Thai politics, viewing them as a threat to democracy. The 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin only served to deepen the divisions between the yellow and red shirts leading to sporadic bouts of unrest, the most violent of which was the 2010 Bangkok protests.
After Yingluck won the 2011 election in a landslide victory, pressures from the yellow shirt movement culminated in the Constitutional Court nullifying the 2014 election and impeaching Yingluck. General Prayut Chan-o-cha (the current premier) then launched a coup and established a military junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) , granting itself sweeping powers with an interim constitution. Since then the regime has sought to censor the media, suppress political opposition and severely punish those who defame or insult the royal family under Lèse majesté laws. Whilst the NCPO started to relax the ban on political activity, the nomination of Princess Ubolratana was perhaps a step too far by the opposition.
Analysis: So What?
The upcoming election on the 24th of March marks the country’s return to democratic regime yet Thailand’s turbulent history of political strife suggests that it won’t be plain sailing. Violence was already anticipated as over a thousand officers were deployed around the Constitutional Court ahead of the ruling on TRC.
Why did they nominate a Princess and why is her nomination significant?
The motive to nominate Princess Ubolratana as the prime ministerial candidate remains unclear. To some it was interpreted as an attempt to reconcile and unify the traditionalists and reformists (yellow and red shirts) whilst others saw it as a tactic by Thaksin to antagonise the monarchy. The outcry against a member of the royal family becoming involved in politics is dramatic. Interventions by the royal family in political affairs is not a new occurrence. Despite the assumption that they remain ‘above politics’, the King’s father, Bhumibol Adulyadej did interfere in the past: in 1973 when Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn was ordered into exile after a student led protest ended in a massacre; and in 1992’s ‘Bloody May’ protests against Suchinda’s government. What is dramatic about her nomination is that she was part of a populist party linked to the exiled prime minister, Thaksin who has been accused of being anti-royalist. It signifies that once again the political dynamics of Thailand are changing.
What does the dissolution mean for the election?
The traditionalists have used the nomination of Princess Ubolratana to their advantage and successfully removed a pro-Thaksin party thereby making it harder to defeat the military junta. The timely disbandment of TRC implies that they are insecure about the continued influence of Thaksin. By dissolving the TRC the establishment is attempting to weaken the support base for Thaksin and his allies. This may only go so far, as it is likely that TRC supporters will simply switch to voting for Pheu Thai. However, a previous electoral strategy that attempted to maximise ‘red shirt’ seats in the House of Representatives has since unravelled. Pheu Thai did not field candidates in the constituencies where TRC was expected to win. This now means that there are no populist parties for the rural and working class electorate in 101 constituencies. So, who will they vote for? Executive members of TRC have urged their supporters to ‘vote no’ in the election and essentially spoil the ballot paper. If enough of the constituency does this a rerun will be forced, allowing Pheu Thai to field candidates and take the seat in parliament.
The question remains as to what other leading contenders in the election will do. The dissolution of TRC is a positive force for the newly formed Palang Pracharat, the political vehicle for the military. Headed by staunchly royalist Prayut, the party intends to maintain the current political order and keep power in the hands of the conservative Bangkok elite – this time with a democratic mandate. Ahbisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party and former Prime Minister has outwardly rebuffed the idea of a coalition with Pheu Thai or Palang Pracharat. Future Forward, a smaller Thaksin proxy party may well align itself with Pheu Thai if the main opposition party can’t secure a majority in the lower house of Parliament.
The removal of Thai Raksa Chart signals that the upcoming election will not be smooth sailing. Thailand has poor record of cyclical fluctuations between democracy and military authoritarianism. As the most coup prone country in the world, it will be interesting to see whether the outcome of the election is respected by both sides. Will the election keep along the same line as previous elections and see in a pro-Thaksin government? Or will the position of the military remain entrenched? The country faces a number of socio-economic problems that requires a fully functioning government to tackle. The election result will indicate whether Thailand can overcome its pattern of coups and prioritise dealing with its development issues.