Ahead of the 2023 elections, the ‘traditional’ powers of the army and monarchy are showing signs of internal fragmentation. The intensity of anti-government protests wanes, but protesters unite over some momentous common battles.
Contemporary Thai politics often appears stuck in a perennial struggle between the conservative domestic establishment committed to defending its control over political and social life, and periodic external progressive pressures seeking to undermine it. It might seem that no external political force has so far managed to erode the dominance of the armed forces and the royal family. In the run-up to the next elections, set for 7 May 2023, recent developments show that, in reality, the pillars of the army and the monarchy are anything but monolithic.
In this context, imposing figures such as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha may appear unmovable, but something is actually moving under the surface. In August, at the opposition's petition, Prayuth, who seized power in the 2014 coup d'état, was suspended from office for five weeks pending a ruling on his allegedly exceeding of the eight-year term limit. The Thai Constitutional Court's ruling on 30 September then reinstated him, opening up the possibility for him to run for a second term (albeit a partial one, until 2025) in next year's elections.
The Court’s ruling amounted to a rather sterile measure, as it did not challenge the trinity of Thailand’s architecture of power (‘Nation, Religion, and Monarchy’). Indeed, on the day of the Court's deliberation, demonstrations by pro-democracy movements did not reach the numbers and intensity of the 2020 anti-government clashes. For locals, this is simply the usual ‘power games’ played by political elites.
Beyond the usual power game
However, Francesco Radicioni, Radio Radicale's East Asia correspondent, points out that "what the story does tell us is the internal split within the Palang Pracharath (PPRP), the main governing party". Prayuth himself does not seem to be the party's favourite candidate for the next general elections. According to some analysts, the PPRP is rather leaning towards General Prawit Wongsuwon, the current Deputy Prime Minister who served as Acting Prime Minister during Prayuth's suspension and is considered to be the real architect behind the 2014 coup. He appears to be the candidate that the PPRP will focus on as the party’s next prime ministerial candidate.
Confirming the deep internal divisions that currently exist within the party, Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin's resignation as a PPRP board member was announced at the end of November, along with the news that another forty MPs would be leaving the party to follow Prayuth into a new party — the Ruam Thai Sang Chart (United Thai Nation) party. Prawit was quick to clarify that the PPRP and RTSCP are in essence “the same party", emphasising the “brotherhood" bond that has bound him to Prayuth for the past 40-50 years. In any case, with a senate elected by the military junta and an electoral law that disfavours smaller parties, the friction between the two elderly generals - Prayuth and Prawit - is yet another confirmation that the promise to modernise the political class is likely to remain unfulfilled in this election round.
The Shinawatra family: new wine in old bottles?
Even on the opposition front, some old names are appearing among the 2023 possible prime ministerial candidates. The Shinawatra family is the foremost among these, in the person of Paetongtarn, daughter of the former leader ousted in the 2006 coup, currently in exile, and granddaughter of Yingluck Shinawatra, the Prime Minister dismissed in 2016 at the hands of the Prayuth-led junta.
The opposition Pheu Thai party has made no mention of Paetongtarn’s possible candidature as Prime Minister for the upcoming elections. Nonetheless, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, argues that for all intents and purposes she can be considered the party's symbolic leader. The Shinawatra family, which has been embroiled in several corruption and abuse of power scandals in recent years, can still count on a few strongholds, mainly in the rural areas in the north of the country. Yingluck’s daughter is likely to attract what remains of the Red Shirt movement — the protagonists of violent clashes against the security forces between 2006 and 2014 and victims of a bloody crackdown by the Prayuth army.
The only real breath of fresh air came from street demonstrations. Regardless of generational and social differences, the Red Shirt 'veterans' converge on some issues with the new protesters, who are mostly members of the urbanised Generation Z, critical of the system’s more conservative features, and sensitive to the issues of economic, civil, and gender inequality.
During the latest protests that took place on the sidelines of the APEC summit hosted in Bangkok from 14 to 19 November, protesters did not limit themselves to demanding the cancellation of the economic summit and expressing personal attacks on Prayuth, whose already declining popularity has been sunk by his inefficient handling of the Covid crisis and the economy (which is close to slipping into recession). The general is seen more as a symbol of the dominance of the military elite — loyal ally of the royal family — as well as the man who brought the country closer to Xi Jinping's China.
As a matter of fact, the protests at the end of November, though subdued compared to those in the past, did call for deeper and more epoch-making transformations, such as the repealing of the extremely strict laws on lèse-majesté, a new constitution that would put an end to the military's meddling in political life, and above all, a reform of the all-powerful monarchy. As Radicioni suggests, in the fragmented and ever-changing landscape of Thai politics, the only constant thread remains the endemic clash between the two-headed establishment - represented by the traditional monarchy-army alliance - and the progressive drives reflecting the aspirations for modernisation and democracy in growing segments of the population. Even with all the limitations, the 2023 elections could represent an opportunity to take a closer look at the nature of the balance of power between these two contrasting forces that seem destined to mark the country's future.
As Arnon Nampa — a Thai lawyer, human rights activist, and leading figure in the 2020-2021 protests — explained, "discussing the monarchy has caught on. We might not see a radical change like a revolution... but one thing is for sure: Thai society will not backtrack”.