Amy Searight on 2019 Thai Election

Dr. Amy Searight serves as senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Searight has a wealth of experience on Asia policy—spanning defense, diplomacy, development, and economics — in both government and academia. Most recently, she served in the Department of Defense (DOD) as deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, from 2014 to 2016. Prior to that appointment, she served as principal director for East Asian security at DOD and as senior adviser for Asia in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She has also served on the policy planning staff and as special adviser for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in the State Department as a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow. She holds a Ph.D. in political science and an M.A. in East Asian studies from Stanford University, and she graduated magna cum laude from Williams College with a B.A. in political economy.

Malea Martin CMC '19 interviewed Amy Searight on April 12, 2019.

While the final results are still uncertain, the military-backed party, Palang Pracharat, performed well in the Thai elections. While the Thai military has long been a powerful actor, how will the military’s participation and strong showing in Thailand’s democratic process affect the Thai political scene?

The Thai military has long played a large role in Thai politics, largely by stepping in from time to time to instigate coups, and by overthrowing elected governments. This has happened once every decade or so for many years. The Thai military has certainly been a part of Thai politics in that sense. What is unusual about this coup, which was launched in May 2014, is that the military took on leadership roles. Typically the military tries to turn the government back to civilian leaders relatively quickly, either by getting back to elections or by having civilian cabinet members. What happened in this coup is that General Prayuth and the junta took control of the government. Many generals, even if they technically retired, as Prayuth did, held on to government positions. They have injected themselves into politics and government much more prominently than they have in the past. They have also delayed elections, with the reasoning that time is needed to transition to the new king follow the death of the previous king. They said they needed to have a steady hand on the government prior to having elections. It seems, however, that they wanted to hold onto power. When the elections finally came around last month, after being delayed many times, it was surprising to see that the military backed party Palang Pracharat received a large number of votes, more than might have been expected. Given the seats that they won in the elections with their allied parties and the 250 seats in the upper house that will be hand picked by the military, Palang Pracharat will be able to put together a majority coalition, thus putting Prayuth back into power as Prime Minister. They are on the political landscape now for the foreseeable future. One thing to keep in mind is that, in the past, the military wasn’t running for office. They used to step back from political parties. This time, Palang Pracharat was very closely allied with the military, with the idea that Prayuth would be the prime ministerial candidate. So the Democratic Party— which had long been the main party in support of the monarchy, and relatively close to both the military the Bangkok elite— lost a lot of votes that they were expecting. One reason why the military backed party did so well was because they poached votes from the Democratic Party.


How do these elections matter for the rule of law and political rights of Thai citizens? Do you expect these elections will embolden Prime Minister Prayuth to continue to curb political freedoms, or will it encourage his party to promote democracy?

The official results have not been announced, and will not be announced until May 9. So, we don’t know exactly how the seats are going to break down and how the different coalitions are going to form. That said, it looks likely that the Prime Minister will be Prayuth, and he will have a majority coalition. So under this assumption, having finally gotten back to elections and an elected government, it might be the case that the government would dissolve the national commission that had been running the government under the junta, Martial Law would be over, and the government would have to function more like a normal government. One certainly hopes that this would bring Thai citizens back to a more normal situation where they have a fair degree of political freedoms and civil liberties that they did not have after the coup and for most of the time that the military junta has been in charge. On the other hand, there are a lot of dynamics at play concerning Thai citizens and their political freedoms. There were some irregularities around the election, for example around the vote count. We haven’t seen yet what the official results will be, but if it looks like the military-backed government and the electoral commission have been influencing the results in order to ensure a majority for Prayuth, there could be a lot frustration among Thais who showed up to the polls, having waited for elections for so long. If there is frustration or signs of civil unrest around that, there will be a real temptation of Prayuth and the military to clamp down on civil liberties and political freedoms. This is a space to watch.


The Election Commission has invalidated many votes, allegedly due to computer errors. How do Thai voters interpret this development? Do they see the Election Commission as trying to find ways to support the Palang Pracharat or do they accept these invalidations as legitimate?

While I have not seen any public opinion polls (and it would probably be quite difficult to poll Thais on this question right now), I would imagine that those who strongly support Palang Pracharat are not too concerned. On the other hand, the large number of Thais who did not vote for the military-backed party are likely very concerned about the irregularities. There were some protests that spilled out right after the elections when some of these concerns first appeared, and so it will not go over well. At this point, even if the rest of the official election results and formation of a new government go relatively smoothly and there are no more irregularities, there will be frustration from the voters. How that is expressed we will have to see.


The populist party Pheu Thai was expected to win but failed to gain enough seats to win a majority. Why did the party underperform? Had they won, what challenges would they have faced given the military’s political power in Thailand?

They were expected to get a large majority of the popular votes, and they didn’t. They got fewer votes than Palang Pracharat, and that was a surprise to many observers. There are a few reasons for this. Many observers assume that the fundamental divide in Thai politics remains along those who support and those who do not support Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a Thai politician and a billionaire entrepreneur who was elected Prime Minister, and then ousted by a coup. His sister later ran in a pro-Thaksin party. She was Prime Minister, and then ousted in the most recent coup. The military-backed parties have tried to ensure that Thaksin is not a large political factor in Thai politics. He is very populist, and speaks for the many rural Thais who live in poverty. Supporters of Thaksin were called the “redshirts,” because red was the color of his party. They were up against the “yellowshirts” of the Democrats, who were the pro-monarchy party, and anti-Thaksin. In previous decades, the big fights and demonstrations that often spilled out into the streets were the redshirts versus the yellowshirts. What this election has shown, though, is that this divide is no longer the most salient one in Thai politics because the pro-Thaksin party did not gain as many seats as people thought it might. Other parties that represent other factions or ideas gained significant ground, in particular the Future Forward party. This party is led by a young Thai entrepreneur, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. He was immensely popular among young people. His party won the third largest number of votes, and this took many people by surprise. Their showing was very strong, and there were other parties that did surprisingly well too. What we are seeing is a new divide, not between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin, but between those who want to vote for change and democracy, and those who want the military to continue to play a large role in the government. It is a divide between pro-democracy and pro-military. That’s one of the reasons why we saw some of the loss of support for the pro-Thaksin party. Some of that support went to these other parties that are still anti-military and pro-democracy, but they are not just backing Thaksin and his agenda.


While Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the Thai monarchy was seen to take a larger than expected role in these elections. How did it become involved in the elections? What role does the Thai monarchy traditionally play in the political system?

Traditionally, the Thai king was seen as very much above politics. He did not make pronouncements or get involved in any direct way in politics. He was widely beloved by the people, and overall a unifying force for Thais for a very long time. When he died, his son Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne. Leading up to the elections, he has now taken several steps that have been unprecedented. First he made some revisions to the constitution that the military-led government had drawn up, rather than simply ratifying it. This was very unusual. He also disqualified his sister from running for election within a pro-Thaksin party after she became a candidate for Prime Minister. The King did not support that, and that party was subsequently dissolved. With these developments, there was definitely a sense of unprecedented royal involvement. It was very surprising on all sides. Then, the night before the election, the King made a statement encouraging Thai citizens to vote for “good people” to run the government. This talk about “good people” was seen by many as an endorsement for Palang Pracharat, and an opposition to the pro-Thaksin parties. So he seemed to endorse one party, but we don’t know yet how much of an active role he is going to play in the day-to-day politics and the running of the government. It is clear he is going to be more active than his father was, but it is unclear exactly how active he will be or what kind of role he would play.


A large number of young people were reported to have voted, and the youth-inspired Future Forward party rose to third place. Can you speak more to the main positions of Future Forward that appeal to younger voters in Thailand?

It is very important to look at the youth vote in Thailand. This was the first time in eight years that Thailand has held an election. The coup was in 2014, but the previous elections were in 2011. That means that there are many young Thais who have never voted before. The estimate is that there were 7,000,000 young Thais who were first-time voters because they were not 18 in 2011. That is about 15 % of the electorate. It’s a very large number, and it shows that these young voters did not feel that they were a part of this old pro- and anti-Thaksin political clash. They wanted to jump onto a new political vehicle and they seemed to like the Future Forward party. The Future Forward party focuses on a return to democracy, free and fair elections, and having democratic principles enshrined in the constitution. They promote human rights, open government and more transparency. It was seen as a way forward. Many Thais want to get past this polarization that has held Thai politics hostage for so long.


Thailand’s ruling junta has filed a sedition complaint against the leader of Future Forward, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Why does the third place finish of Future Forward seem threatening to the Thai military?

First of all, the Thai military and the backed party were caught by surprise. Prayuth and the current military seem to still see Thai politics as this polarized landscape, where the majority of Thais support Thaksin, and the rest of Thailand is anti-Thaksin and supporting the military and the more conventional elite status quo. But I think that they are actually missing a real shift because there are so many young people who want something different. People now want a full- fledged democracy and a more forward-looking government. When the Future Forward party did so well and better than Pheu Thai, the pro-Thaksin party, it took the junta by surprise. They are now perhaps backpedaling to try to see what they can do to limit the power of this new party. They’ve filed charges against Thanathorn, and if he is convicted he could be tried in a military court and he could be disbarred from politics. This would decapitate his party. That’s the sort of situation that could lead to protests or civil unrest. We will have to see what the pro-military regime does around this. It could be a big mistake for them to prosecute Thanathorn and throw him in jail, but we will have to see what happens.

Malea Martin CMC '19Student Journalist

Per Meistrup [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

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