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As election looms in Thailand, Prayuth plots an extended stay in power

Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has finally confessed to an open secret: He is “interested in politics”. His recent confession, coming five months before elections are scheduled to be held, is the clearest indication yet that he and the military have no intention of giving up their leadership of Thailand for some time to come.

As election looms in Thailand, Prayuth plots an extended stay in power

The author says that the return to power of Gen Prayuth, seen here with farmers in Suphanburi province in September, after the next election is far from a done deal.

Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has finally confessed to an open secret:  He is “interested in politics”.

Since he seized power in a coup in May 2014, General Prayuth has repeatedly hinted that he wants to stay on in power while also promising to hold elections.

But his recent confession, coming five months before elections are scheduled to be held, is the clearest indication yet that he and the military have no intention of giving up their leadership of Thailand for some time to come.

So what can we expect in the coming months?

First, Gen Prayuth will continue to rally support from political parties to ensure his bid is successful.

Notably, one day after his confession, he used his absolute administrative power under Section 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution to remove the mayor of Pattaya and appoint Mr Sonthaya Khunpluem, leader of Phalang Chon Party, in his place.

Phalang Chon had seven Members of Parliament in the previous Parliament. It was an ally of Pheu Thai in the coalition government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The sudden appointment of Mr Sonthaya to the plum job in Pattaya is undoubtedly  an incentive to inspire him to switch allegiance of Phalang Chon to join the ongoing movement of political parties to support a return of Gen Prayuth to the premiership after the general elections in 2019 (GE2019).

Those that are in favour of this include two newly-formed parties:  Palang Pracharath and Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT).

The former comprises a growing number of veteran politicians as well as at least four ministers in the Prayuth Administration.  

ACT, on the other hand, is under the guidance of Mr Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy leader of Democrat Party who led the six-month-long protests in Bangkok against the Yingluck administration, which eventually led to the coup by Gen Prayuth.

Mr Suthep is a sworn enemy of fugitive billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the eldest brother of Yingluck, and it is therefore not a surprise that ACT is on Gen Prayuth’s side.

Under the Thai Constitution, a prime minister will require the endorsement of at least one vote more than half of the National Assembly, or a minimum of 376 Members of Parliament and Senators.

If none of the nominees contesting in GE2019 receive such an endorsement, a simple majority group can submit a joint petition to the President of the National Assembly to consider “outsiders” who are not on any of the parties’ lists.   

And of course, Gen Prayuth will be waiting for the invitation.  

He cannot stand in the election as under the constitution, he would have needed to have resigned from his post since 2017 to do so.

He can still be nominated by a political party as its prime ministerial candidate before the election, but this is unlikely given that such a move would come under attack by the other political parties.

So being nominated as an “outsider” candidate looks to be his best bet.

The junta will be in charge of selecting most of the 250 appointed Senators before GE2019.  Thus it is safe to assume that all those handpicked as Senators would uniformly vote for Gen Prayuth. But there must still be at least another 126 among the 500 MPs to support him.

This is why Mr Sonthaya was suddenly appointed to the Pattaya job in Chonburi. In the 2011 general elections, eight MP seats were at stake in the province. The movement to bring back Gen Prayuth needs all the help it can get among the 500 MPs.

To be sure, Gen Prayuth has scored high in opinion polls, such as the one conducted between Sept 17-18 by the National Institute for Development Administration, Thailand’s first public pollster.

It found that most Thais (29.66 per cent of respondents) actually do support Gen Prayuth continuing as the prime minister after GE2019.

Coming second with 17.51 per cent was Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, one of the front-runners for the party leader post of Pheu Thai.

Respondents’ third choice (13.83 per cent) was Mr Thanathorn Juang-roong-ruang-kit of Future Forward Party, while Democrat Party leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was fourth with 10.71 per cent.

Another public opinion survey conducted between Sept 5-8 by Suan Dusit, a public teacher training university, found 24.72 per cent support for Gen Prayuth to be the prime minister after GE2019.

Mr Abhisit came second with 17.57 per cent, followed by Khunying Sudarat with 14.63 per cent and Mr. Thanathorn with 14.63 per cent.

Yet it is also safe to say that the numbers could very well be attributed to name recognition rather than genuine political support.

After all, after over four years in power, what significant national reforms have he and his colleagues in the junta achieved, despite having absolute administrative power?  

Gen Prayuth’s return after GE2019 is far from a done deal.  

And this is why the junta is doing what it can to strengthen political support for him.  

Political parties are not yet allowed to use social media to promote themselves and the junta is watching closely whether Thaksin is once again pulling strings behind Pheu Thai.

Any party caught being manipulated by a non-party outsider can be punished by a dissolution of the party. This is why talk about making Thaksin’s son-in-law to be the new party leader of Pheu Thai has died down.

To legitimise his stay in power, the junta has included in the current Constitution a framework for national reforms in almost all aspects of Thai life - from politics to government administration, law, justice process, education, economy, and healthcare.

In addition, the junta laid down a 20-year National Strategy that compels all future Thai governments up to the year 2036 are obliged to promote “stability, prosperity, and sustainability”, failing which one can assume the military will use it as a justification to intervene in the political process again.

This political innovation is seen to be aimed at deterring any return of populist policies which can propel a return to power by the Shinawatras.

The military has failed once in 2006 when it ousted Thaksin, only to see political parties linked to him win subsequent elections.

This time, the military seems determined not to repeat the same mistake.   

What the Thai people can do now is to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a  researcher at the Asean Studies Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.  His views in this article are his own in his capacity as a Thai citizen.

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