BANGKOK - Nearly five years after the military stormed to power in yet another coup, Thailand has finally announced an official election date scheduled for late March.
It comes with mounting defiance to the army’s tight control over freedom of expression, as activists and artists increasingly risk the threat of jail to publicly demand a ballot.
Thai Election Commission Chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong told a press conference Wednesday the date had been set for March 24.
“That is the date, which is flexible enough and should be beneficial to everyone concerned. That is the main reason why we decided to choose that date,” he said.
Public frustration flared when it recently was announced the long promised vote would be delayed for a sixth time because of concerns the Feb. 24 scheduled date could conflict with King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s coronation in May.
That excuse had perplexed many, given that pushing the date back would bring it into even closer conflict with the coronation.
A group of arch royalists staged a demonstration directly outside the Election Commission to protest the pre-coronation ballot date immediately after it was announced Wednesday.
Wide field of parties
A particularly wide field of smaller parties now is set to contest the election in a political environment that has opened somewhat since the junta relaxed wide-ranging bans on political activities in December.
It will still be a democratic election, however, that comes with many autocratic caveats enshrined in the constitution Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha imposed after he seized power from Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government in 2014.
Major concerns include the military being able to virtually hand pick the entire 250-person Senate. Future governments also will be locked into a legally binding 20-year junta-devised development plan covering everything from national security to social equality.
?Military retains control
Paul Chambers, a political analyst and lecturer in Thailand’s Naresuan University, said the military also would retain significant control over its budgets after the election through a constitution that also allowed for an unelected prime minister.
“So, there is a democracy, there are elections, but when people say, ‘Oh, Thailand’s going back to democracy,’ it’s not the same quality of democracy that used to exist,” he said.
A very powerful military that could appoint people to positions in the army previously overseen by the elected prime minister would remain behind the scenes, Chambers emphasized.
In October, incoming Royal Thai Army commander Gen. Apirat Kongsompong refused to rule out yet another coup after the election.
Thailand has had 19 attempted coups and 12 successful ones since 1932.
In addition to the Pheu Thai party aligned with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and longtime rivals the Democrats, the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party will compete with several smaller parties.
One that has attracted considerable interest is the progressive and diverse team that has united behind 40-year-old billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward.
On Tuesday, Thanathorn told VOA the election was just a small first step in what would be a protracted struggle to wrestle power from those who had controlled the wealth and power of the country for decades.
“So, if you want to correct what’s wrong over the past decade, there’s only one way you can solve that. You tackle the root cause of the problems. That means you have to deal with these structures, with this group of people. I haven’t seen any politicians trying to do this before,” he said.
“Since 1932, since the democratic revolution happened in Thailand — it’s been 86 years — and we’ve still been only this far. I believe democratization in this country will not be completed in the next year or two,” Thanathorn said.