Written by Hannah Beech (Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting)
Pauline Ngarmpring is running for prime minister of Thailand, one of around 70 candidates for the job. She will not win.
One reason is that she was born a he.
But a more fundamental explanation is that Thailand’s elections, scheduled for Sunday, were circumscribed even before campaigning began. For nearly five years since a military coup, Thailand has been ruled by a junta that has suppressed dissent, targeted political parties and, now, orchestrated an election that will give voters only partial franchise.
That hasn’t stopped around 80 parties from running. Their aims are eclectic. Pauline’s party wants to represent not only transgender individuals like herself, but any Thai whose human rights have been compromised.
“People think of Thailand as a party place, so happy and nice for holiday, but we have a lot of problems with human rights that need to be solved with better government,” Pauline said in an interview.
Another major party, Bhumjaithai, which came in third in the last elections, has tied the nation’s future to the legal cultivation of marijuana. Its leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, says that Thailand’s soil is perfect for growing cannabis and that small-scale farming could bring each household an extra $13,000 a year — if people don’t hoard too much for their own recreational use.
There is a political party for defenders of Buddhism, and another with 15 candidates who all legally changed their names to those of the Shinawatra siblings, two popular former prime ministers whose governments were unseated by military coups.
Yet these diverse platforms and colorful candidates camouflage a darker truth: After years of delay by the junta, Thailand may at last be going through the rituals of democracy, but the elections are taking place in a much-diminished political landscape.
“Thailand is moving into a custodial democracy under long-term military supervision,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “Anti-junta forces are likely to win the vote in the lower house, but because the constitution is so stacked in the military’s favor, a junta-led coalition government is likely.”
Even pro-military Thais agree that Pheu Thai, a populist party affiliated with the Shinawatra family, will be the top vote-getter Sunday, as were its sister parties in every previous election this century. But the junta’s constitution ensures that the Senate is entirely appointed, and the prime minister does not need to be a sitting member of Parliament.
Given the constitutional limits, it is improbable that Pheu Thai will be able to form a government.
In addition, several other parties and their executives have court cases hanging over them that, after the election, could result in the dissolution of parties or jail time for their leaders.
“Nothing about this upcoming election is free and fair,” said Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, a new youth-focused party that has enjoyed a groundswell of online support in a country with some of the most active users of social media in the world.
In recent elections, only about one-third of Thais between the ages of 18 and 25 voted. But social media campaigns have energized the demographic, and more than 10 percent of the electorate is young.
Thanathorn, who has enjoyed strong crowd support during campaign stops, is facing computer crimes charges over a Facebook Live video in which, prosecutors say, he spread fake news. Human rights groups say the charges, which also have been made against Future Forward’s deputy leader and could involve prison time, have been trumped up in order to kneecap the party.
A decision in Thanathorn’s case could be made in the coming week.
Thailand has had a fractious relationship with democracy since absolute monarchy was outlawed nearly nine decades ago. The nation’s generals have staged more than a dozen successful coups, and the country has churned through 20 constitutions. The average prime minister’s tenure is less than three years.
For years, the nation has been bifurcated between elite urbanites, and debt-ridden farmers and factory workers, who have seen Thailand’s wealth gap grow under junta rule. A survey by Credit Suisse found that Thailand is the most unequal society on earth, beating out Russia and India, with 1 percent of the population controlling more than 65 percent of the wealth.
“In the past in Thailand, it has always been the rich who use their capital to take the profits from poor farmers, who accumulate debt to survive,” said Anutin of the Bhumjaithai Party, which is campaigning on agricultural reform, including cannabis production. “This cannot continue.”
An earlier incarnation of Pheu Thai was one of the first parties to heavily court the nation’s rice growers and working class, offering health care subsidies and agricultural incentives. The result was landslides in every election since 2001, when Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecoms entrepreneur from the north, swept to victory and discomfited the establishment in Bangkok.
Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 and has since been convicted in absentia of corruption-linked crimes, as has his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, another former prime minister, whose government was toppled in the 2014 coup. Both remain popular, even from self-imposed exile.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is known, has been nominated to stay in his current job by a military-affiliated political party.
Prayuth is openly distrustful of some of the trappings of democracy. He has threatened, perhaps jokingly, to shoot journalists whose coverage he dislikes. Under junta rule, dissidents have been sent to detention camps for attitude adjustment. Cybercrime and sedition legislation has been used to target thousands of people who have spoken out against the junta and its limits on freedom of assembly and speech.
In the weeks before the election, Prayuth, who writes his own songs and likes to perform them, has tried to show off a gentler mien. His party has released gauzy photos of the prime minister on social media, one with his hands cupping his smiling face, accompanied by a sentiment attributed to Prayuth: “Sometimes I want to look handsome.”
Even if Pheu Thai and other Shinawatra-linked parties mimic history and do well in Sunday’s election — one such party was dissolved this month by the Constitutional Court, in a controversy that involved the Thai king’s sister’s brief candidacy for prime minister — the bloc of 250 senators appointed by the military is likely to jettison their chances of leading the country.
What may follow, instead, is a weak, fractious coalition. The Democrat Party, a long-established force that gave tacit support to the last coup, is angling for a major role in any coalition. It is likely to be among the top vote-getters Sunday, winning support in its traditional urban and southern power bases.
But waiting in the wings, and even on the ballots, is the military. If anti-junta forces coalesce again, no one is discounting another putsch.
“Every time there’s a coup d’état, the country falls behind,” Thanathorn said. “This vicious cycle must be stopped.”