After an ineptly rigged election, Thailand’s junta will cling to power

“WE HAVE RECEIVED a mandate from the people,” declared Sudarat Keyuraphan, a leader of the Pheu Thai party. She was introducing a slate of seven parties that she said had won a narrow majority in the lower house of parliament in the election held on March 24th. Parties linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister ousted in a military coup, have won every election in the past 20 years. Pheu Thai, his current vehicle, seems to have won more seats than any other this time, too. But the results also mark a victory for the military junta running the country, which rigged the process to reduce Pheu Thai’s showing and will probably deny it the chance to form a government.

Initial results suggest Pheu Thai won 137 of the 500 seats in the lower house. That is more than any other party, but a far lower share than in previous elections. The system of proportional representation the generals used hurt Pheu Thai. So did official harassment of its activists, the banning of an allied party and rules that made it difficult to campaign via social media and barred all but the tiniest political gatherings until December.

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These same distortions helped Palang Pracharat, a party founded last year to support the generals, win perhaps 116 seats overall. But Future Forward, another party opposed to the generals, is set to become the third-biggest. Meanwhile, the Democrats, the country’s oldest party and Pheu Thai’s fiercest foe, performed abysmally. They lost their stronghold of Bangkok. Their leader, a former prime minister, resigned. The net result is a chamber that is fairly evenly divided, for the moment, between friends and foes of the junta.

The junta’s position, however, is stronger than it looks. For one thing, the Election Commission has until May 9th to certify the final results. Its boss already raised eyebrows on election night by saying that he would have to halt the count just hours after it had started because he did not “have a calculator with me now”. Mr Thaksin scoffed that turnout in one district exceeded 200%. Elsewhere the number of ballots appeared greater than that of voters. The Thai for “election commission busted” has been trending on Twitter. The suspicions of manipulation matter since the Election Commission has released only provisional voting data from the country’s 350 constituencies, on which the allocation of a further 150 party-list seats depends. The parties have made their own projections of the result, but the commission could yet declare a different outcome.

It also has the power to investigate violations of campaign rules. If it considers them grave enough, it can order candidates disqualified (a red card) or the election to be re-conducted in certain constituencies (a yellow card). That provides an easy way to erode Pheu Thai’s alliance. “From now on we’ll see so-called red and yellow cards,” predicts Ms Sudarat. Pheu Thai will not be the only target. The commission recently threatened to bring proceedings against Future Forward for being subject to “outside influence”—a usefully vague no-no. Its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, faces personal legal troubles, too. He is on trial for comments he made in footage streamed on Facebook, in which he suggested that the junta was trying to win defections from hostile political parties.

Bangkok will bubble with intrigue until the seat numbers held by each side seem more secure. Rumours abound that the six MPs of one of Ms Sudarat’s allies, the New Economy Party, will defect, wiping out her claimed majority of five at a stroke. There are lots of smaller, biddable parties, who could help shore up either side. Pheu Thai is said to have offered the post of prime minister to Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the Bhumjaithai party, with a projected 51 seats, if he were to join its block.

But securing the post of prime minister involves overcoming the junta’s biggest advantage. The constitution the generals pushed through in 2016 awards the job of picking the prime minister to a joint sitting of the lower house and the 250-member Senate. All the senators are appointed by the junta. That means that the incumbent prime minister and junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, would only need 126 votes in the lower house to keep his job. A rival candidate, meanwhile, would need 376 votes in the lower house—a daunting target.

But if the parliamentary arithmetic all but assures Mr Prayuth’s return to office, it also makes his job extremely difficult. The sweeping powers that the junta has enjoyed since seizing power in 2014 will lapse once a new cabinet is installed. Mr Prayuth will then need to persuade a majority of the lower house to back whatever plans his government may have. Even if Pheu Thai’s claimed majority evaporates, it is clear that the lower house will be difficult to manage. Mr Prayuth’s career in the army and as a coup leader has not given him a lot of experience of horse-trading with politicians.

Even with unfettered authority, the generals have not done a good job of running the country. True to form, their preparations for the election appear to have been half-baked. Finding excuses to lock up or disqualify lots of the new MPs would be to dismantle the democratic façade currently under construction. But if the democratic front still holds a majority of the seats in the lower house when the Election Commission releases the final results on May 9th, instability looms. Thailand’s junta, it seems, cannot organise a rigged election in a dictatorship.

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