Thailand’s military junta to delay elections to 2016 – is anyone surprised?

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 28, 2014

In the immediate aftermath of the military coup of the May 22 earlier this year, there was some early hope by rather optimistic (but ultimately naive) observers that this hostile takeover of powers would be just a “speed bump” or a “slight setback” for Thailand’s democracy. The hope was that, as with the previous coup in 2006, powers would be returned to a quasi-civilian government that would organize fresh democratic elections within a year.

However, the 2006 military takeover failed to purge the political forces of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his sister Yingluck taking power in 2011, only to be ousted earlier this year. This time the military junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been particularly cagey (as mentioned here) about the near- and mid-term future of Thailand’s political discourse – particularly about when elections will take place – so much so that the piercing questions by the media at one press conference provoked a walk-out by the junta leader.

In the weeks following that the junta set the agenda: the so-called “roadmap” sees “reconciliation” by the “reform process” as a main pretext before democratic elections can be eventually held. Now six months after the coup, with the establishment of a fully junta-appointed ersatz-parliament called the “National Legislative Assembly” (more than half stacked with active and retired military officers), a fully junta-appointed “National Reform Council” tasked with making reform recommendations, and the rather exclusive “Constitutional Drafting Committee”, the institutional bodies for the junta’s political groundwork have been set, joined by a cabinet of ministers that is largely the same as the military junta at the top.

The junta said that, all going to plan, elections could be possible in late 2015. However, that prospect is now very unlikely:

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also defense minister, said elections will take place in 2016, citing groups opposed to the junta, or National Council for Peace and Order, as it is formally known, as one reason for the delay.

“We will be able to organize elections around the start of 2016 once the constitution is drafted,” Prawit told reporters. “Right now there are elements opposed to the National Council for Peace and Order.”

Thai election pushed back to 2016: deputy PM“, Reuters, November 27, 2014

This should come as NO surprise to even the casual observer. There have been quite a few times already that a delay of elections has been hinted at. Here they are in reverse chronological order:

Speaking to the BBC’s chief business correspondent Linda Yueh, [Thai finance minister Sommai] Phasee said that from his conversations with Gen Prayuth “I think it may take, maybe, a year and a half” for elections to be held.

He said both he and the prime minister wanted to see an end to martial law, but that it was still needed now “as his tool to deal with security”.

Thailand elections ‘could be delayed until 2016‘”, BBC News, November 27, 2014

[สัมภาษณ์กับนายเทียนฉาย กีระนันทน์ ประธานสภาปฏิรูปแห่งชาติ (สปช.)]

“กฎหมายลูกที่ต้องร่างเพิ่มเติมภายหลังได้รัฐธรรมนูญจะใช้เวลาเท่าไร บอกไม่ได้ ตอบได้เพียงว่าไม่นาน รวมเวลาการทำหน้าที่ของสปช.ทั้งหมดน่าจะห้อยไปถึงปี ’59

[Interview except with Thienchay Keeranan, President of the National Reform Council]

“How much time it will take to amend the constitution [for a referendum] once this is set – I cannot say. I can only say that it won’t take long, the work of the National Reform Council will be done by 2016.

แนวทางปฏิรูป-กรอบร่างรัฐธรรมนูญ – สัมภาษณ์พิเศษ“, Khao Sod, October 27, 2014

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (…) said on Wednesday that elections planned for 2015 will depend on whether wide-ranging national reforms can be completed within a year.

“I outlined a roadmap. The election must come with a new constitution and eleven reform areas,” said Prayuth. “Everything depends on the roadmap so we must see first if the roadmap can be completed. Elections take time to organize,” he added, giving no further details.

Leader of Thai junta hints at delay in return to elections“, Reuters, October 15, 2014

The actual reasons for the delay are pretty simple: the so-called “reform” plans by the junta – aimed at marginalizing the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra’s political forces even at the cost of disenfranchising nearly half the electorate – are apparently taking longer than initially believed, despite all the government institutions being dominated by its political allies.

Furthermore, martial law is still in place in order to quash any form of opposition, seen this past week (read here and here). It is these public displays of dissent that the junta will use as a pretense to claim that “reconciliation” hasn’t been achieved yet and thus an election cannot be held under the present circumstances. At risk of sounding like  broken record, the real problem isn’t the fact that there is opposition to the military junta, it is rather that the opposition is banned from expressing it publicly  – if at all, it should be done silently, says the junta.

The junta’s attitude to its commitment to the “roadmap” (and a lot of other things) can be summed up by what junta Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister (and largely assumed main backer of the coup) General Prawit Wongsuwan said earlier this month at a press conference after a case of junta interference in the media (we reported):

I would like to remind the media that the government, the NCPO are currently in the process to achieve reconciliation in this country. Everything that is an obstacle to reconciliation… everything that will create divisions – we won’t let that happen! Let it rest, wait for now. […] so wait… for a year! We have our roadmap, the government, the NCPO are following it, they’re following their promise. So why the hurry?!

Why the hurry indeed when you cannot be actually held accountable for missing the deadline…?

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