After four years in power, the military junta that initially promised a general election in 2015 but postponed it several times, is keeping Thais guessing as to when or whether they'll be able to elect a new government.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit wants to change Thai politics for good. The 39-year-old tycoon recently ended his business career and started a new one in politics. "For many years, Thai politics has been conducted on the basis of 'rule of the few.' It's in each of our interests to make it the 'rule of the people,'" the co-founder of the Future Forward Party told DW.
Thanathorn is one of many who have become frustrated with military rule in Thailand. Tuesday, May 22, marked four years since the military took over power by ousting the country's civilian government. Thailand's then army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, subsequently became prime minister and has since led the country as head of the junta that replaced the civilian government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Prayuth promised to restore democracy, but elections have been repeatedly delayed.
Many Thais now fear the junta doesn't want to give up power after all, and frustration and resistance are growing.
Junta cements its power
Since the start of the year, Bangkok has witnessed sporadic protests against military rule. Some were led by young activists, others by supporters of ousted former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled abroad after being toppled in 2006. It was his sister, Yingluck, who was ousted in the 2014 coup. She too fled abroad prior to being convicted in absentia of corruption.
Pro and anti-government street protests — some of them deadly — have rocked Thailand for more than a decade. The military claims that it staged the 2014 coup to end this very cycle of violence.
Thanathorn believes that the junta has failed the country. "This government hasn't delivered effective policies to serve the public. The economy is stagnant, corporations monopolized, the freedom of the press and the right to political participation have all been highly restricted," he told DW.
The new politician is facing a tough battle though. This is firstly because Thailand has long been bitterly divided between the so-called Red Shirts (supporters of former PM Thaksin) and the Yellow Shirts (supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy Party). This has led to mass protests, violence and stagnation.
Secondly, the junta has cemented its power. In 2016, it drafted a new constitution giving the generals full control over the senate, making it relatively easy for Prayuth to be appointed prime minister after the elections. He only needs 376 votes from MPs and senators; 250 senators are already believed to be in his pocket.
But the junta's popularity is declining. Four years ago, many Thais breathed a sigh of relief when the military brought an end to street protests and promised to bridge the political divide. Now, many people are disappointed. The rulers have become more repressive, the political conflict hasn't been solved, and the long-promised elections have been delayed time and again.
Decline in popularity
Things worsened over the past few months after a scandal erupted over Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan's collection of expensive, luxury watches. Despite maintaining that he borrowed them from a friend who had passed away, he has failed to assure activists or the public.
"I feel that corruption has gotten worse under the junta," said the founder of CSI LA, a Facebook page that investigated the real value of Prawit's watches. This activist, who asked to remain anonymous for personal safety reasons, told DW that he believes that the junta made Thailand miss a lot of opportunities. "And there is no counter-balance. The junta obviously doesn't listen to the people."
Others share a different opinion. They say that the junta has gotten rid of some of the worst forms of corruption in businesses, and has fought effectively against human trafficking.
Several political parties have endorsed Prayuth, including the newly formed People's Reform Party headed by former Senator Paiboon Nititawan. In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Paiboon said that Prayuth is the best candidate to become PM after the elections.
Polls, however, show a strong decline in popularity for the junta. And those may still be mild, says political analyst Kan Yuenyong. "Many poll interviewees are probably scared and censor themselves. I think we can only find out how popular Prayuth and the junta really are when we go to vote," Kan told DW.
Thus the question remains: when will elections take place? Prayuth reiterated on Tuesday that a general election will take place in "early 2019 and no sooner" as hundreds of protesters marched in Bangkok demanding that a vote be held in November this year. But after all the delays, many Thai people are finding that hard to believe.