Don’t ask Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha about his “political future”. Pose that question instead to his “elder brother” – Deputy Premier and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan.
No, the premier hasn’t assigned his senior-most deputy to speak on his behalf. What the No 2 says about his boss is guesswork. But it’s as close to “calculated guesswork” as we will get under the circumstances. And if the PM doesn’t come out to contradict his deputy’s speculation, we can be pretty sure it’s the only official line we have to go on – at least for now.
Officially, the PM’s stock answer on the role he will take after the election is held (whenever that will be) boils down to: “I don’t know. And don’t ask me that question again. Who knows the future?”
Officially, the deputy premier’s own speculation about the PM’s political future is also: “I don’t know, but…”
That “but” sparked wild speculation because Prawit followed up with words to the effect, “…but if the situation so warrants, he [the PM] may run for public office”.
Pressed to give more details, the deputy premier will snap: “Of course, the PM knows what’s best for him – and the country.”
What then is the most likely scenario? The answer isn’t all that complicated. In fact, if you have followed the news closely enough, you will probably arrive at three likely scenarios:
1. The PM stays put.
2. The PM runs for election.
3. The PM retires into oblivion.
Most observers would rule out the third option completely. Why would he have asked citizens to respond to a series of questions about the election and post-election concerns unless he wanted to remain part of the scene.
The probabilities of Option 1 and 2 coming true are at present probably about 60:40 either way, depending on your interpretation of Prayut’s statements in the past few weeks.
He would of course prefer to end his rule by declaring victory and success, thereby justifying his decision to stage the coup in May 2014 to “save the country from total chaos”.
He could then stay put while polls indicated public support for him to continue, despite inevitable opposition from other quarters demanding that he let the election run its course and that the military return to barracks. In this scenario, political parties – mostly medium and small, old and new ones – would suddenly announce their support for him. Add the 250 “handpicked” senators in Parliament, and the combined force could be sufficient to return him to the premiership.
He would of course appear reluctant at first, saying it was never his intention to remain in power once his mission was accomplished. But with tasks still unfinished and loose ends needing to be tied up, General Prayut might “have no choice but to bow to public demand”.
Since the way has already been paved for that scenario – the new constitution leaves the door open for an outsider (a non-MP) to head the new government – the question of legality won’t be such a tough issue, although the debate on “legitimacy” could prove to be an embarrassment.
The other option, of course, is for him to jump right into the political ring, having laid down a 20-year strategy plan to achieve the goal of Thailand 4.0 that will finally enable us to escape the “middle-income trap”.
This electoral option is plainly more risky than the first. But his advisers would suggest that it’s a more “graceful” way of continuing to “serve the country”. He would also be presented with selected polls showing the public believed his presence was “indispensable” if the country was to avoid falling into another period of conflict and uncertainty. After all, the much-heralded reform and reconciliation efforts have yet to achieve any substantial results.
There is a huge roadblock on this particular path, though. Analysts point out that under Section 263 of the Constitution, if General Prayut was planning to contest the upcoming election, he would have had to quit his current position by July 6. If that’s true, he has missed the deadline, and the second option appears no longer valid.
The decision on which option is the preferable one remains a dilemma, of course. Both choices present their own complications and the inherent political risks are numerous. But then there is never an easy way to get off the tiger’s back.
The PM’s statements so far indicate that he will cross the bridge when he comes to it – if the bridge is still there, that is.