The Thai military government led by the former army chief Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in power since a coup in May 2014, recently announced that elections will be held on February 24, 2019, under the constitution adopted in 2017. It also lifted a ban on political work but has circumscribed the nature of activities political parties can undertake for the elections. Does this mean that the country is going to now enter into an era of sustained democracy and the prospects of military interventions will be reduced to zero? To search for an answer a look behind the façade of the Thailand of world-famous beaches and of night life, which attract millions of tourists, is essential. That would reveal a very complex polity and society as I discovered during my posting as India's ambassador to the kingdom in 2005-2006.
I reached soon after the then Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, had won a second term by capturing three-quarters of the lower house of Parliament in elections held in February 2005. He appeared invincible and Thailand's political system stable under a democratic constitution adopted in 1997. Some months later, a respected Thai journalist suggested to me not to go by legislative majorities but consider the interplay of powerful institutions especially the monarchy, the army and the elected government. This was sound advice. About a year after this conversation the army ousted Thaksin while he was abroad. It was apparent in the months before the coup, though never expressed publicly, that the then venerated King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was very unhappy with the Prime Minister and his ways.
Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since then army intervention has been a periodic feature and the institution has mostly been intensely loyal to the monarchy. Constitutions have been regularly made and unmade with such interventions. Since the 1960s the aura and influence of the monarchy increased enormously because of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's personality, life-style and commitment to and connect with the people. He ascended the throne in 1946 at the age of 18. By the time he passed away in 2016 he had become the world's longest serving monarch. He kept himself scrupulously above the slugfest of party politics and the army-civilian interplay but kept an eagle eye on what was going on and if matters evolved negatively for the country's interest Bhumibol intervened and everyone fell in line.
In the late 1990s Thaksin Shinawatra, a former police officer, introduced a populist form of politics which was a departure from the staid ways of the old Bangkok elite which controlled state institutions, businesses and politics under the benevolent though distant eye of the King. Thaksin's power base were the poor of the north and north-east and the new businesspeople who had made their fortune with the new technologies. Indeed, he had himself become a billionaire through his companies' involvement in mobile telephony and other communication systems. He won the election in 2001 and 2005 and threatened the old elite for he had made inroads into the institutions including the army. Hence, the coup of 2006.
The army took over the government and ensured that Thaksin was kept out of the country. However, even from abroad he kept his popularity alive and ensured that his proteges controlled popular political parties. A new constitution was adopted in 2007 and a Thaksin proxy party won and formed the government. Thaksin returned to the country in February 2008 but the judicial institutions struck back and embroiled him in case after case. In August of that year he went abroad and has since been in exile. Meanwhile his hold over Thai politics continued. When the dissolution of one proxy party was ordered another one came up led by his sister Yingluck who too won the 2011 elections and became Prime Minister.
The uneasy peace between Yingluck and the old regime came to an end in 2014 amidst fears that her government was taking action to allow Thaksin's return to the country. The army ousted her and took over the government and elections are now slated after almost five years of its rule. Meanwhile the army has ensured that it will play a constitutional role for the next few years for the defence services' chiefs will sit in the Senate and there is speculation that Gen. Prayut wishes to become Prime Minister after the elections. It is almost certain that in the next elections too Thaksin proxy parties will win a majority. That will mean that political and systemic uncertainties will continue.
A major change now is that relations between the palace under the present king and Thaksin may not be negative as it was in the past. The king has put his stamp on monarchical institutions including the Privy Council. Meanwhile the army ensured that the Thai system smoothly ensured the succession to a new king. Thus, all in all, Thai polity will have to find political balance despite the elections though social peace will largely hold. That balance will be achieved only if the new forces in the country and the old establishment are able to reach an accommodation. This is important for Thailand is an important ASEAN country which will chair the organisation in 2019.
India's relations with Thailand have positively grown over the past three decades and Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to pay homage, in person, to the memory of the late king in Bangkok in 2016. It would have been better still if he had paid a full bilateral visit despite the military rule.