COVID-19 to determine election timing, and perhaps winners
Humans make rules, dissolve parliaments, woo voters, mark ballots, and set up administrations, but the new normal of politics stipulates that they aren’t the ones actually in control. Those activities and their eventual outcomes will be dictated by another life form which most eyes can’t see.
The coronavirus has had, and will continue to have, a big say on who stays, who goes and who arrives politically. In divided Thailand, it is more so, but things are hanging complicatedly in the balance for all the players at the moment.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is betting on the COVID-19 situation four months from now, hoping it will have remarkably improved and a lot more vaccines will have come by then. Judging from his latest comments, a House dissolution should not happen soon, if it will happen at all. A few days ago, he said he intended to “stay the course” so “people will stop talking (about a snap election)”. A day later, he said he wanted to “reopen” Thailand within 120 days, and, in that statement, showed every determination to oversee the ambitious agenda himself.
A reopened Thailand with improved COVID-19 numbers is great for almost everyone. To politicians wanting to dethrone Prayut at all costs, however, it could be bad news. The national divide has made cynicism override good conscience and national interests secondary to political goals.
When Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered his Cabinet last week to speed up implementation of public projects as the government only had one year left in office, many saw it as a countdown to dissolution of Parliament. And there are other signals that Prayut may be planning to call an early election before his term ends in 2023.
Prayut and his opponents know that if the COVID-19 situation drastically improves or deteriorates, nothing else matters. That is why the next four months is a critical period for Thailand. Either his rating can rise considerably, and help government parties in the process, or they will be a pushover in a general election.
In the first scenario, will Prayut take advantage by dissolving Parliament and calling an early election to cement his power? Again, he will have to think a lot about the coronavirus’ ability to turn a “success story” into a nightmare in the blink of an eye. If he decides that his government should stay on to complete its term, what is the guarantee that a new, devastating wave will not strike just before the four-year period is completed?
If the opposite happens, Thailand being overwhelmed by COVID-19 and the economy going from bad to worse 120 days from now, what will Prayut do? He could resign because “it’s not Parliament’s fault”, or reluctantly opt for a snap election to avoid rebellions at various levels, even among government partners themselves.
Here is where things get very complicated. An early election will most likely take place under the present constitutional system that many do not like. In other words, when the Constitution is concerned, it should be changed first for Prayut’s opponents to have a realistic chance, and they obviously know that.
Then there is the issue of apparent mistrust between the two biggest opposition parties _ Pheu Thai and Move Forward. The former can benefit from some kind of constitutional changes while the latter cannot and may even lose grounds drastically to Pheu Thai.
But overall, the fate of the proposed charter amendment is complexly tied to the COVID-19 situation. Scares will make the road relatively smooth for mooted constitutional changes or, on the contrary, turn the Thai public against protests which could be deemed an addition of insult to injury. Scares can quicken an amendment process, or they can put the amendment on hold entirely.
The draft bill for a national referendum on charter change is back in the spotlight, with Parliament due next week to resume deliberations that were suspended in April. The government-sponsored bill would open the door to the rewriting of a Constitution that has been criticized as undemocratic and designed to extend the military’s grip on power.
An election called by Prayut amid a positive COVID-19 development will face the same legal and constitutional troubles, but they will not be as difficult to overcome as in the “bad-case” scenario. No matter how “unfair” or “flawed” the Constitution is deemed, he can call an election under the present system if Thailand can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. Protesters will be weakened, and so will the parliamentary opposition pushing for its proposed charter changes.
There could be a way for the opposition to tame the Senate without changing the charter. Opposition parties can hope that if they win the next election in a landslide, it will put the influential non-elected chamber out of the equation no matter what the current Constitution says. Landslide election results will put an immense pressure on the Senate which can be forced to go along with “the will of the people.”
But then again, what will be the biggest factor in a landslide election win? The answer is that it’s something that can only be seen through laboratory microscopes.
By Tulsathit Taptim