Thailand is on the cusp of monumental change as a military regime prepares to loosen its grip on power. But how will this change affect the legal landscape? John Church reports
If no one changes the script at the last minute, Thailand is poised for its first democratic election since a 2014 military coup. The poll is scheduled for 24 February 2019.
The term “democratic election” is used in a looser sense, considering political gatherings were banned until only recently, in December, and the slapped-together opposition parties that have since registered, or are still waiting to have registrations approved, are contending with a well-oiled pro-regime party (Palang Pracharath, or PPRP). Late changes to 350 electoral boundaries have caused a supposedly independent Electoral Commission to come under fire with claims of gerrymandered electorates, and reports of massive vote buying in the form of regime handouts to low-income earners and the elderly have also emerged.
But things must at least be seen to be on the democratic uptick if Thailand is to see a return of much-needed Western foreign investment, and if the country is to rejoin the fold of countries developed enough to rule by methods other than authoritarian.
“The elections in Thailand are very important as the world will be watching,” says Franck Fougere, managing director of Ananda Intellectual Property law firm, foreign trade adviser to the French government and former president of the Franco-Thai Chamber of Commerce. “It is time for Thailand to return to a true democratic regime and the elections are a clear opportunity to boost investor confidence in the country and increase foreign direct investment. Hopefully, Thailand will send a strong signal to the world that it has appeased its internal political divisions and successfully managed to preserve good economic growth while bringing back democracy to the people.”
Warot Wanakankowit, founding partner at the law firm Warot Business Consultant, says real change will occur “as the new government … shall face more scrutiny than the current government because it will be considered the democratically elected government. In my opinion, the new government may be a hung parliament, so there will be a lot of factors that might create instability for the new government.
“However, having said that, I would still expect the economy in Thailand to do well in 2019. Also, after the election, I hope to see more investment from foreigners in Thailand.”
Other lawyers are divided on the completeness of change to democracy but most maintain an optimism that at least things are moving in the right direction, which should bode well for growth.
“My guess is that the elections will lessen the political tension which is being felt at the moment and will be good for business,” says Jayavadh Bunnag, senior partner and managing director at International Legal Counsellors Thailand (ILCT), member of the Council of State’s committee to revise laws on business organizations, and president of the International Law Association of Thailand. “The prevalent feeling is that the pro-government alliances will restore the current prime minister [and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha] to power.
“However, the new government will consist of coalition parties and this will change the political landscape. As far as business is concerned, this will bring about less predictability in policy decisions, for example, on new and pending infrastructure projects. However, the change should not adversely affect day-to-day business, as this is governed by existing laws.”