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Friday, February 15, 2019, 16:05
Thailand at an important crossroads
By Kriengsak Chareonwongsak
Friday, February 15, 2019, 16:05 By Kriengsak Chareonwongsak

Thailand's general elections scheduled on March 24 will be the kingdom's most important event from the immediate perspective.

Considering the changes in recent years and the current trends, the main possibilities surrounding the upcoming polls are interesting.

First, under the latest Constitution, signed into law in April 2017 by King Maha Vajiralongkorn whose coronation is set from May 4 to 6, the newly formed government will enjoy the support of a majority of elected representatives from multiple parties.

READ MORE: Thai election panel disqualifies princess as PM candidate

In the past, the party that gained a majority in an election formed the government. However, the upcoming elections are unusual because the new constitution declares that the appointment of the prime minister must be made by parliament, which includes 500 elected representatives as well as 250 senators appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order. Therefore, the new prime minister must have the support of at least 376 members. 

General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the current prime minister, has a good opportunity to become the prime minister again since he will get the votes of the 250 appointed senators and many political parties that support him (led by the Palang Pracharath Party or PPRP). Therefore, he needs the support of only 126 representatives from the total of 500 elected representatives.

There seems to be many possible scenarios regarding the formation of the new government. Personally, I believe that the chance of having a coalition government that holds a majority of seats in the legislature is higher than having a minority government.

Following the analysis of BBC Thai on Oct 10, which predicted the number of representatives under the new system, the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) will obtain around 204 members. In the current situation, I believe that PTP can get 200+ representatives, but not 250 representatives. 

As for the PPRP, it is likely to gain the support of other parties which are willing to join any side, such as the Bhumjaithai Party, the Charthaipattana Party, the Chart Pattana Party and the Democrat Party. Together, these parties should have the support of around 150 to 200 representatives. Therefore, the PPRP and allied parties may have the support of more than 250 representatives.

Second, the coalition government will have moderate stability due to internal conflicts and social conflicts. 

If the new government is as I have projected, they will operate with moderate stability. Overall the government will run smoothly with the majority support of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

However, internal conflicts will arise, as each party in the coalition government tries to maintain its own agenda. This kind of problem is common when the government comprises many parties.

As for social conflict, there will be political rallies or protests from those with opposing political ideas and people might call for the investigation of election outcomes or express their dissatisfaction.

However, if there is a clear evidence of election fraud, the failure of government administration, and injustice practices toward opposition parties (for example, the dissolution of a party), a large number of people might not tolerate the situation any more. These factors can lead to extreme and unexpected conflict in society. 

For the direction of new government policies, there are issues to take seriously. 

Firstly, for the overall picture, the new government will be forced to follow the 20-year National Strategy. This strategy was enacted in October 2018 and neglect of the strategy will incur legal penalties. 

Moreover, since General Prayut is likely to stay in power and the mainstay of the new government will be the PPRP, the leaders of which are key ministers in the present government, it can be assumed that the new government will maintain the direction and style of the public policies of the current government. 

Important policies that will continue are the policy of Thailand 4.0, which emphasizes technological development, creativity and innovation in order to upgrade the country from medium-income to high-income status. 

Also, the Eastern Economic Corridor projects and populist policies to solve the poverty problem will continue. 

The second issue to consider is the investment promotion. 

In late 2018, the cabinet approved five megaprojects (totaling about $20.7 billion) under the EEC projects and seven water management projects (totaling about $990 million). Many more projects have been submitted by various ministries to the cabinet for approval.

Government investment in these projects could total $6.38 billion with at least $14.35 billion coming from the private sector. So the model of investment used by the new government will be to promote public-private partnerships.

The government has prepared for these investments by amending the Private Investments in State Undertakings Act (2018) in order for joint investment between the government and private sector to become possible quickly and effectively.

The third issue would be Thailand’s ASEAN presidency. 

In the past, the Thai government did not have a very influential role in the region and did not benefit from ASEAN as much as it should have. However, as Thailand has been holding presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since November 2018, the new government will be encouraged to be more proactive and try to play a more important role. 

Regarding concerns that the Thai people will assemble to protest against the new government, as occurred with the ASEAN summit in 2009, whether protests take place or not would depend on the new government’s performance. 

That is, if the new government does not achieve anything concrete, there is a high risk of provoking protest. On the contrary, if the new government performs well and quickly enough, protests can be avoided.

The fourth factor issue involves foreign policy.

In the past, Thailand has maintained a policy of balancing power in order to ensure that no particular superpower could influence the country to a degree that would lead to friction and strongly affect the country’s international relationships. 

The new government will likely continue this direction in foreign policy: that is, to maintain a balance between the United States and China.

READ MORE: Tired of army rule, Thai youth a rising force in March election

To the question: is Thailand heading in the old direction and old route, or a new direction and new route? The upcoming general elections will provide the answer. It will be an important turning point and we will soon know which way Thailand is heading in the year 2019. 

The author is senior fellow, Harvard University and chairman, Nation-Building Institute, Thailand. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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