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No winners in Thailand as political gridlock continues amid rumours of possible election fraud

Stanislaus Jude Chan
Stanislaus Jude Chan4/1/2019 08:00 AM GMT+08  • 5 min read
No winners in Thailand as political gridlock continues amid rumours of possible election fraud
SINGAPORE (Apr 1): “CheatingElection19” was among the top trending terms on social media amid allegations of electoral fraud, following Thailand’s general election on March 24 — the first in five years after then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra
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SINGAPORE (Apr 1): “CheatingElection19” was among the top trending terms on social media amid allegations of electoral fraud, following Thailand’s general election on March 24 — the first in five years after then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was toppled in a military coup in 2014.

Both the anti-junta Pheu Thai party and the military-backed Palang Pracharath (PPRP) party have claimed victory at the polls. Based on incomplete, preliminary results reported so far, Pheu Thai has won the most seats, whereas PPRP claims to have won the popular vote under a complex election system that mixes first-past-the-post and proportional representation formats.

Even though PPRP garnered 7.9 million votes, or 24% of total votes, Pheu Thai is believed to have captured 137 of the 350 constituency seats up for grabs, compared with PPRP’s 97 seats. Meanwhile, party list figures have not been released by the Election Commission (EC), but Pheu Thai is expected to get none of the 150 party list seats. Together, the 350 constituency wards and 150 party list seats will make up Thailand’s 500-seat parliament.

“Following the election results, PPRP and Pheu Thai are now competing and racing to form a coalition to dominate the Lower House,” say Maybank Kim Eng Research analysts Lee Ju Ye and Chua Hak Bin in a report on March 26.

While the duo says Pheu Thai is likely to align with the Future Forward Party and other anti-regime parties to gain around 250 seats, they believe PPRP’s prime ministerial candidate, junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, is likely to be elected, as the 250 appointed senators are expected to support him.

“However, an opposition-majority in the House is likely to result in more difficult passage of bills, and a coalition government also implies that the interests of many parties would have to be managed and balanced,” Lee and Chua warn.

For Toby Wu, a senior analyst at trading platform eToro, the biggest question is whether Prayut, the standing military govern­ment-appointed PM, can turn into the Kingdom’s elected.

“If the pro-military party is elected, Prayut’s proposed ‘Thailand 4.0’ strategy will bring new economic growth while creating a politically stable atmosphere. However, the Prayut government lacks financial self-discipline. The fiscal imbalance and surging government debt would be a potential risk,” Wu says. On the other hand, he adds: “If Pheu Thai is elected, their new policies would inject a fresh perspective and value into the Thai economy.”

Associate professor Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at NUS Business School, says: “Stability in the country’s political governance is fundamental to confidence building, particularly in the arenas of global investments and tourism.

“Any uncertainty in the government formation, including delays in forging a post-election equilibrium among the major parties, will have key impact on the economic momentum.”

Harrison Cheng, Control Risks associate director and lead analyst for Thailand, says the election results show a significantly more divided Thailand than before the 2014 coup, and political instability in Thailand will remain high in the coming months.

“Political gridlock is set to emerge,” Cheng says. “Regardless of who gets to form the government, the new minority government is likely to run into serious problems trying to pass laws because they do not have a simple majority… Policy reforms and regulatory changes will therefore be at risk of being stonewalled in parliament.

“Political stability would be crucial to supporting growth momentum, which is already facing headwinds from slowing external demand and a tourism slump. We do not rule out the chances of social unrest, which could hurt foreign investment, consumer sentiments and tourism, as seen during the last political crisis.”

Indeed, social unrest is poised to rear its ugly head again in Thailand, even though observers say it is not expected in this coronation year, as it would be seen as disrespecting the monarchy.

Already, a large number of reported irregularities has prompted a petition to impeach members of the EC. This could see the announcements of the official election results delayed further, or even their nullifi­cation.

On the ground, troubling rumours of possible election fraud have surfaced, fuelled by a voter turnout rate released by the EC that was considerably lower than expected. The March 24 election recorded a surprisingly low turnout rate of 66%, a big drop from the 75% in the 2011 elections.

But Maybank’s Lee and Chua say there is a “low probability” that the EC — appointed by the ruling junta’s hand-picked legislature — will be impeached. “The law states that the Upper House would need at least 60% of its members on board to impeach the Election Commission,” the analysts say.

“Although there have been critiques on the whole election — whether it is a mere show from the current government or a promising chance for democracy — the outcome will reveal itself,” says Usa Skulkerewathana, a senior lecturer at NUS Business School.

“Economically and politically, I reckon this election casts a better light for Thais and the nation as whole.”

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