Thailand’s Junta Targets Opposition Leader, Flexing System Rigged in Its Favor – The New York Times

The junta leader and current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, center, visiting a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Tuesday. It is likely that he will be named to head the new government.CreditCreditLillian Suwanrumpha/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BANGKOK — Thailand’s military junta is targeting a popular new pro-democracy party, accusing its leader of causing disorder that could lead to rebellion even as the seat allotments from last week’s parliamentary elections are being calculated.

The billionaire leader of the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was ordered on Wednesday to submit to the police for questioning in the case, which initially opened four years ago. He is accused of helping protesters flee arrest at a demonstration and faces up to seven years in prison.

Mr. Thanathorn, who has built a large following partly through social media, posted the summons on Facebook and Twitter and wrote: “When the dark power won’t leave Future Forward alone.”

“It’s clear now that the old-school political game won’t end after the election, but is only getting more intense, because they’re afraid of Future Forward,” he added. The party came in third in the balloting last week.

“The army does the army’s duty, which is to protect, maintain, and defend the institutions of nation, religion, and monarchy,” the general told reporters.

The interventions are the latest indications that the Thai junta is clinging to every advantage it can to gain an edge through the election. And the junta gave itself many of those advantages, as it put in place a new Constitution and electoral system after seizing power in a 2014 coup.

Those changes gave the generals sweeping influence over Parliament itself, and over an Election Commission with great power to bar candidates and target lawmakers for ejection.

The first electoral test for that new system came last week when Thailand finally held its long-delayed parliamentary election. And though the results are not yet official, it is already clear that the regime’s system is doing what it was designed to do: splintering the pro-democracy opposition, and entrenching the junta’s authority.

Representatives of the Pheu Thai and the Future Forward parties during a meeting after the election last month. The opposition coalition, including Pheu Thai and Future Forward, claimed on Wednesday that it would have a razor-thin majority in the House.CreditGemunu Amarasinghe/Associated Press

“Thailand is headed to a military-guided, authoritarian system,” said Purawich Watanasukh, a research fellow at the independent King Prajadhipok’s Institute in Bangkok.

According to the Election Commission’s preliminary results, the leading vote-getter was the military-backed party, Palang Pracharat, with about 24 percent.

But that is less than half the popular vote received by the next three parties, which all campaigned for a return to democracy. In total, they received 51 percent of the vote, according to the early count.

“Palang Pracharat ran on the idea of maintaining stability and continuity and the others ran on the basis of restoring democracy,” said Verapat Pariyawong, a visiting scholar at SOAS School of Law at the University of London. “The majority of Thai voters went for the idea that we need to restore democracy.”

In parliament’s lower house, the House of Representatives, the likely result will be a sharply divided body and a weak coalition government. The commission has until May 9 to announce the official results.

Calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order after it seized power, the junta drafted a new Constitution, the country’s 20th, which was ratified in a 2016 referendum. For that vote, the junta blocked opponents from campaigning and barred election monitors.

Voters approved a separate measure allowing the military to appoint all 250 members of the Senate, who will join the 500-member lower house in selecting the next prime minister.

Critics contend that the entire system is rigged in the military’s favor.That is partly through its influence over the powerful Election Commission, which came under fire for numerous irregularities during the balloting, delays in announcing the vote count, and an unexpected surge in the number of votes reported.

At one news conference, the commission’s president, Ittiporn Boonpracong, told reporters that he could not work out the party list percentages because he did not have a calculator with him.

Dozens of protesters gathered in Bangkok on Sunday to protest the Election Commission’s handling of the vote and what they termed cheating.CreditLauren Decicca/Getty Images

At another, the commission released 208 pages of election data and told reporters to figure out the seat allocations themselves.

Initial delays prompted the United States State Department to call for transparency.

“We stand with the Thai people in calling for the expeditious announcement of voting results and a fair and transparent investigation of any reported irregularities,” a State Department spokesman, Robert Palladino, said last week.

More than 5.6 percent of the votes cast were invalidated, including some for not being marked properly. If they had gone to a single party, that party would have finished sixth over all.

In the 2011 parliamentary election, more than three quarters of the vote went to two parties, Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party, which finished second and fourth in last week’s election. (An election held in 2014 was ruled invalid by the Constitutional Court.)

The military has another edge, as well: The timing of the coronation of a new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, expected on May 4 to 6.

That is only a few days before the election results become official. And the effect, in a country with strict laws against criticizing the monarchy, has been to make pro-democracy leaders reluctant to stage any major protests before the coronation.

Dozens of protesters did gather on Sunday afternoon to protest the Election Commission’s handling of the vote and what they termed cheating.

Still, the military may have to use even more tactics to fully secure a win.

Under complex rules that do not necessarily reward winning the most votes, Palang Pracharat will hold about 118 seats in the House while the opposition Pheu Thai Party is likely to get about 137, according to unofficial projections.

Casting votes in Bangkok on election day. The Election Commission has until May 9 to announce the official results.CreditWason Wanichakorn/Associated Press

But under the country’s new Constitution, and an accompanying body of law that followed it, the deck is stacked against them.

Since the next prime minister will be chosen by a combined vote of the House and the military-appointed Senate, it is likely that the junta leader and current prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, will be named to head the new government.

And whatever the outcome of the vote, the Constitution gives the military the authority to shape Parliament’s membership in the months and years ahead.

The Election Commission can seek to remove members for election misconduct and call new elections in those seats, in some circumstances barring the previous winner from running again. More than 180 such complaints have been filed.

“They have the whole year to disqualify people,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “So the number can be changed the whole time.”

In addition, Mr. Verapat, the University of London visiting scholar, pointed out that the Constitution gives military-appointed officials the power to remove members of Parliament any time for violating broad “ethical standards.”

The standards include adhering to democracy with the king as the head of state, pursuing the public interest over private interests and conducting oneself in an honest manner.

Government officials and courts will have wide discretion under the law to decide what violates the ethics standards, he said.

“Even if the so-called democratic coalition was able to form a government,” Mr. Verapat added, “they would face a tough road ahead.”

Source: Thailand’s Junta Targets Opposition Leader, Flexing System Rigged in Its Favor – The New York Times

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