Thailand’s local politics have been at a standstill for six years since the military took power in 2014. The then National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha suspended all levels of local elections as it banned political activities. Now that the country has transitioned to democracy mode after last year’s general election, there is no reason to prolong a suspension which has fuelled public frustration.
Last week, Gen Prayut told the media that the elections “would take place sometime this year”. But many take his words as a tactic to appease critics, rather than a commitment. It remains uncertain when there will finally be fresh local elections for 7,852 local administration offices. The absence of commitment demonstrates that Gen Prayut is not ready to relinquish power amid political uncertainties and rifts.
The freeze in the local polls has created an unusual situation for local politics. If the government lifts the control, it means the country will have elections for all the local administration offices in Bangkok, Pattaya and 76 provinces simultaneously. This is unprecedented.
Initially, the Interior Ministry proposed that the Bangkok governor election and the provincial administration organisations (PAO) nationwide should be held by October last year as they deemed them ready. But the government turned down the proposal, saying the delay in forming a government made it difficult to hold the polls. Instead, it suggested the polls should take place in the first quarter of this year. But now it said another delay was needed as all the state budget had been spent fighting Covid-19.
But citing a lack of budget and also the Covid-19 pandemic is ridiculous. Singapore, while being hit hard by the coronavirus, is going ahead with its polls. Therefore, Gen Prayut’s reluctance could be related to his fears that local elections may give his opponents a boost and that may affect his government’s status. Besides, it is said that Gen Prayut has become too well acquainted with the calm and quiet political atmosphere of the NCPO era when all political activities were banned.
But Gen Prayut must not forget that he is obliged to keep democracy on track and the government has a commitment to hold local elections and ease all restrictions on democratic rights given that the people have shown political enthusiasm as attested by the turnouts for the by-elections in Nakhon Pathom, Khon Kaen, Kamphaeng Phet, and Lampang. Each of these polls saw more than 60% of eligible voters exercising their voting rights. This is extraordinary.
If the government continues to drag its feet on local elections while all the elements are ready, it means the powers-that-be are betraying the principles of democracy, people participation and local development as they aspire to maintain their power and political advantage through unjustified means. The power struggle in the PPRP has already put the government in a bad light.
But it would come as no surprise if the government uses Covid-19 as an excuse to delay local elections. If that proves to be the case, what Thailand has tried to convince the world about regarding its “return to democracy” in 2019 will be proved a lie. Another inconvenient truth is that even that victory was only secured with the support of 250 NCPO-appointed senators.
Without local elections, it will become clear to the world that the country’s democracy is half-baked. The ban means local people have had to put up with corrupt leaders in local administrative agencies for too long. Gen Prayut must return power to the people and allow them to effect change at the ballot box.