Thai junta chief faces tough transition if he wins election

  • Coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has a good chance of remaining in power, but observers wonder if he is ready for the rough-and-tumble of real politics
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 9:05pm

Thailand appears to be back on the democratic track since the military-led government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha pledged to hold a general election on February 24 and lifted its ban on political activities.

Political parties are now gearing up for full-scale campaigning from early January.

Many observers believe Prayut, who led a bloodless coup four years ago as then army chief, has a good chance of remaining in power, thanks in part to the role that the military-appointed Senate has under the new constitution in choosing the next prime minister.

According to Nattaya Chetchotiros, the Bangkok Post’s assistant news editor in charge of political affairs, Prayut has yet to announce whether he will throw his hat in the ring, but will quite likely become head of a new coalition government if he does.

He is widely expected to be nominated as the candidate of Palang Pracharat, a political party headed by Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana that counts three other cabinet members among its leaders.

The new party has already attracted a large number of former parliamentarians and politicians from several other parties.

Even if it fails to garner the most votes in the election, the pro-junta party could come to power by way of the new charter, promulgated in April 2017, which effectively weakens the populist Pheu Thai Party that is widely perceived as the political vehicle of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

According to Nattaya, Pheu Thai, which has won every general election since 2001 under different party names, is likely to win the most votes again this time because of strong support among the rural electorate for Thaksin, who was overthrown in a previous coup in 2006.

But the role of the Senate and changes in the electoral system that make it difficult for an opposition party such as Pheu Thai to form a majority government most certainly dim its chances of returning to power, she said.

Thaksin and his younger sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, are both unable to return to Thailand to participate in politics because they were convicted in absentia of various charges, which they say were politically motivated.

In October, Thaksin, who has been critical of the junta, said an alliance of pro-democracy parties would defeat a pro-military coalition – if the election were held freely and fairly.

Regarding Thailand’s other major party, the Democrat Party led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Nattaya said, “The chance is zero that the Democrats will join hands with Pheu Thai, but there is a possibility that they will join with Palang Pracharat.”

The key mechanism that Prayut could use to hold onto power is the Senate, whose 250 junta-chosen senators are empowered to join 500 members of the House of Representatives in choosing the next premier.

But their support for Prayut’s candidacy over that of other candidates could undermine the legitimacy of his rule in the post-election period, thus hindering his transition from authoritarian to democratic ruler.

Abhisit suggested Prayut is not a shoo-in to become the country’s next prime minister, saying voters will give a final say which party they prefer to run the country.

“Once he (Prayut) decides to join politics, he’ll be a politician, not an outsider (who mediates between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin groups) any more, so he has to let voters give a legitimate mandate to him by winning election,” he said.

Academic Yutthaporn Issarachai, from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, sees an uncertain political situation in Thailand after the election as the country is likely to have a coalition government.

He too believes Pheu Thai will get the most votes in the election due its strong grass-roots support, followed by the Democrats in second place and Palang Pracharat in third.

Unfortunately for Pheu Thai, a majority of votes will not necessarily mean a majority of seats in the House of Representatives under the new system, he noted.

In the 2011 general election, which was held under the 2007 constitution, Pheu Thai captured 264 of the 500 lower house seats up for grabs, enabling Yingluck to become Thailand’s first female prime minister. At the time, only half of the upper house was appointed; the other half was elected.

Deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra chose Hong Kong as it has no extradition treaty with Thailand

Observers see the Democrats as the vital variable in forming the prospective coalition government.

Abhisit could face pressure inside his party, the country’s oldest, if he stands firm in shunning Palang Pracharat, especially since the Democrats have been in the opposition for nearly 10 years.

Many Democrat politicians reportedly favour a coalition, as long as it is not with Pheu Thai, the party’s nemesis.

Yutthaporn sees no more likely choice for premier than Prayut at the moment. But the academic wondered whether the retired Royal Thai Army general is ready to engage in the rough-and-tumble of real politics, cope with the checks and balances of democratic government and handle open criticism of his governance from opposition politicians in parliament if he becomes the next premier.

“He has to control his temper, appoint smart and clean ministers and be ready for the political battlefield,” he said.

Whatever new government emerges, he said, it should prioritise improving the economy and elevating the people’s quality of life if it hopes to gain the popular support needed to be viable.

If not, an unexpected political crisis could happen again due to discontent among economically disadvantaged people, especially as anti-government groups would take advantage of the situation.

“You can see a peaceful situation now, but it is not really peaceful. The political movements are still active but they do not make a move in public. Political rifts have not yet gone from our country,” Yutthaporn said.