Thai Elections Promise More Turmoil

The country's first election since a military coup in 2014 will probably not lead to stability in the near future.

Thai voters will go to the polls on March 24 to choose their country’s leader for the first time since the military took over the government in 2014. The incumbent prime minister, retired general Prayut Chan-o-cha, hopes to hold his seat. Multiple political parties, including those backed by exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, also have candidates that have qualified for the race. A military coup forced Thaksin out of office in 2006, and a court decision removed his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who also served as Prime Minister, just before the military took over in 2014.

Thailand’s new constitution, approved by voters and signed by the king, will likely leave Prayut in power even if the party that nominated him, the Phalang Pracharat Party, fails to win the most votes. The new constitution allows the military to appoint all 250 members of the upper house of Thailand’s legislature. These appointed legislators and their 500 elected counterparts in the lower house will elect the next Prime Minister. Assuming Prayut has the full support of the military-appointed upper house, he will only need 126 lower house votes to stay in power.

Whoever wins, political stability is unlikely, says Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “A win cobbled together for pro-military parties would be very unpopular among supporters of pro-Thaksin parties,” he explains. “A victory by pro-Thaksin parties would probably lead to intense efforts by the military (and possibly the palace) to defang and hobble those parties.”

The political conditions are impacting the economy, Kurlantzick adds: “Thailand has had nearly two decades of political turmoil and lack of stability, and that has a corrosive effect on the investment climate in all respects.”

Foreign direct investment (FDI) has dropped, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development. Thailand received $15.5 billion in FDI in 2013, the year before the most recent military coup. In the four years that followed, inflows dwindled to an average of only $5 billion annually. By contrast, nearby Vietnam saw FDI grow from $8.9 billion in 2013 to $14.1 billion in 2017.