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Thai junta promises elections next year - but will they really take place?
Thailand's junta announced on Tuesday that it will organise a general election in November 2018. But politicians greeted General Prayut Chan-O-Cha's announcement with scepticism, given that he promised a return to civilian rule within 18 months after his May 2014.
General Prayut said an exact date may be announced in June next year.
“It would be great if Thailand moved forward and had elections as soon as possible, before the end of this year,” says Sinichok Sopha, a member of the now defunct Thai parliament for the Democratic Party.
“But we don’t know for sure when they are going to give power back to the people. But if they have announced that the elections will be next year, if true, it is moving the country forward."
But others are more pessimistic. “They are under a lot of pressure,” says Breen Danthong, a senior advisor to the Union for Civil Liberties.
“General Prayut was in the White House and met with [US President Donald] Trump [on October 2]. He then said that there will be elections next year. But then he corrected it when he came home and he said that the day should be announce next year. But he hasn’t given a particular date, so that is why I am sceptical.”
Junta has extensive powers
Even if a date is fixed, politicians such as Sinichok Sopha say that there is uncertainty as to when political parties can start campaigning, because they are restricted by Article 44 of the constitution.
This article, written by legal scholars in 2014 at the request of the junta without any public consultation, empowers the military leadership to issue any order in any field, covering national order, security, economy or public administration, basically giving the military a blank cheque to do anything they want.
“The junta has to lift this ban before any political party can start campaigning or doing anything towards the general elections next year,” says Sopha.
Others believe the junta will keep the notorious article until after the election.
“It is quite likely that it could go into the post-election period,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political scientist who lives in exile in Japan because he was placed on a government blacklist.
“Because, in the back of their mind, the junta understands that there’s a lot of people out there who are rejecting the constitution written by the junta. Many would doubt the transparency and legitimacy of the elections."
Scrapping Article 44 could lead to demonstrations on the streets, he says. “So I think 44 could be kept even after the elections to ensure that a new government is formed. Then they can talk about maybe lifting it.”
Queen in ill-health
But even if there’s an indication for a date, with our without Article 44, it is not sure if elections will go on as planned:
Queen Sirikit, the widow of King Bhumibol who himself died in 2016, is said to be very ill. “We don’t know when she’s going to pass away.” Says Chachavalpongpun. “If she passes away, then there would be another year of mourning.”
This, he thinks, could also be used to postpone the elections.
Apart from that, the official coronation of the king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has yet to take place and could also serve the main purpose.
“The junta has to make sure that they can completely control the situation,” says Chachavalpongpun. "They want to make sure that the new king is put in place comfortably, firmly, that the opposition would not go and challenge. This is what they are trying to do. This is why they keep delaying it."
With an indication date now set for November 2018, political parties in Thailand are now awaiting the green light to start campaigning but, with Article 44 hanging over their heads, they may think twice before becoming really active.