Global Insight Perspective
The move comes less than a week after the Constitutional Court ruled that the former ruling Thai Rak Thai (TRT) should be dissolved and many of its senior leaders barred from politics for five years.
Yesterday’s decision has been broadly welcomed and is regarded as an important step towards conducting elections in December as scheduled.
It does however, have its detractors, who argue that democracy is being hobbled and that without the TRT’s involvement, politics cannot be truly representative.
Amending the Legislation
The cabinet’s decision means that the post-coup ban on political activities has been lifted and that political groups can begin preparing for legislative elections later this year. Another order, which provides the legal basis for the political ban on former TRT executives, has been maintained however. This falls under a piece of legislation called Announcement Number 27. It is feared that if this is revoked, it would effectively exonerate the 111 senior TRT leaders who are currently banned from politics. With this decision, it would seem that the cabinet has backtracked on the announcement late last week that an amnesty for selected TRT leaders was being considered. Currently, no new parties can be formed, but the cabinet is expected to address this in the next two weeks through further legislative changes.
The New Political Landscape
It would seem that the TRT’s 14 million supporters from the last election will be forced to seek a new political option. It has been suggested that the remnants of the party will regroup, but given its factious nature, this is debateable. Even before the military coup, several TRT leaders had opted out and formed their own parties, and TRT voters may turn to them. Going into the December polls, there are likely to be at least four key parties to watch out for:
Democrat Party (DP): This is the country’s oldest party, with a strong representation in the south. It has ruled the country previously and was in opposition to the TRT ahead of the coup. The party and its leaders also faced charges of electoral fraud, but the Constitutional Court found them not guilty. The DP suffered flagging fortunes in the face of the TRT’s dominance of politics in the 2001-2006 period, but with the latter’s demise is expected to enjoy a strong showing. The decision to appoint a new and far more dynamic leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, will also help.
Chart Thai Party: This party was formerly a coalition ally of the TRT, until relations deteriorated over policy differences and it resisted merging with the larger party. It was founded in 1974 by three army majors. Its main policy platform has traditionally been the promotion of the community, with key policies including education for all. Its appeal has historically been limited.
Mahachon Party: The party was created in mid-2004. It had high hopes for the 2005 election, but ultimately its policy platform—proposing a mix of Thai culture, sustainable development and modern advancement—secured little public support. It worked alongside other opposition parties last year to stymie the TRT’s moves to form a government following the April polls.
Matchima Party: This is the newest of the parties and was formed last year by Somsak Thepsuthin, a former loyalist to TRT leader and ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The party has a similar populist line to the TRT and is expected to secure votes from TRT supporters.
Outlook and Implications
Yesterday’s ruling is regarded as a key step back towards democracy, but there are misgivings about the TRT’s total exclusion from the political process. Some observers have argued that this will undermine the legitimacy of the December polls, while others have suggested that new parties, like the Matchima Party, stand a good chance of gaining strong results by piggybacking on the TRT’s policy line. Pundits are already looking to the elections and their possible outcome. Abhisit is regarded as a good consensus candidate for the post of prime minister, who is sufficiently popular to lead Thailand back to some sort of political normality. His DP can also expect to secure broad support from the Thai elite, but less so from the majority rural poor. As such, a party with a populist policy line is likely to do well and pose a challenge to the DP. However, the military government’s role should not be forgotten, as it is likely to pursue strategic alliances with key parties to help secure its influence over the polls and the resulting government.