We are back in the same old vicious circle once again. Many of the questions making headlines these days are little different from those that were being asked decades ago. The gist doesn’t change, only the players are different:
1. When is the next election?
2. Will it actually take place?
3. If there is an election, what will the rules be? Will they favour the powers-that-be?
4. Will the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) set up a political party? Or will a “nominee party” be set up in its stead?
5. Will Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha follow his road map? If so, will he try to rewrite it to suit his own agenda?
6. Does PM Prayut plan to remain prime minister after the election, if and when it is held? If so, how does he plan to go about retaining his power and influence?
You could add many more questions to the list – and most people would consider the act of gossiping about possible answers the ultimate political activity for the country.
Observers have stirred a degree of excitement by pointing out that the prime minister did not rule out the possibility of a military-backed party, when he remarked on Tuesday that this wasn’t the time to discuss the issue since there was still another year to go before any decision had to be made.
In fact, just the day before, Deputy PM and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan had created quite a sensation by declaring: “If it is necessary, the NCPO may have to form a political party.”
That declaration more or less confirmed the worst fears of politicians – that the military, despite earlier pledges to return to the barracks when its “political mission” was completed, was in fact planning to extend its stay in politics for an indefinite period.
Then came a report that Maj-General Songklod Tipparat, a former member of an NCPO national reform committee, was setting up the Palang Chartthai (Power of the Thai Nation) Party that could help the military brass prolong their hold on power. The PM was quick to dissociate himself from the move.
“I don’t even know this person. And I don’t need anyone to help me to make that kind of move,” he told reporters. He then promised to order an investigation into the story. Don’t be surprised if nothing comes of that “probe”.
And when the PM posed the interesting question of what the media and society had against military officers holding Cabinet portfolios, several commentators were quick to point out that things weren’t going to change in any dramatic way in the political merry-go-round in Thailand.
In fact, ahead of the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle there is little sign that efficiency and merit will be major criteria in selecting candidates to replace ministers who have not met performance standards.
Very few observers believe that Prime Minister Prayut will embark on a major revamp of the Cabinet line-up. Critics say he still retains his “elder brothers, young brothers, comrades-in-arms and friends” who have stayed loyal to him all along. And in military tradition, loyalty is usually reciprocated, despite Prayut’s public insistence that, “I know how to separate personal relations from professional judgement.”
But even if we have answers to all the above questions, the prospect of Thailand’s political future remains bleak and minus much hope.
Efforts to implement reform and reconciliation – the two pillars of rationale coup-makers gave for the 2014 putsch that installed the current government – have produced disappointing results so far. None of the reform proposals promises to pull the country out of the vicious circle of election-coup-election.
The government has been ramping up efforts to propel Thailand into the 4.0 era of digital modernisation. But it won’t get anywhere near achieving this highly ambitious goal if the quality of politics remains stuck in the 0.4 mode.
Without genuine political reform – that must encompass the political as well as military establishment – the “best and brightest” among Thais will remain wary of politics as their cynicism about “Thai-style democracy” only grows.
The same players will re-emerge once the song-and-dance of election campaigning strikes up. The military will somehow find a way to justify its continued hold on power, directly or otherwise. The business community will, in the name of stability and continuity, continue to play its dual game of survival: Support those in power, for as long as our interests aren’t affected.
In the language of digital start-ups, if Thai politics can’t locate the real “pain points” in the current social landscape, any attempt at launching genuine innovation will inevitably fail, and fail miserably.
We have just completed a “lost decade” in Thai politics. But if things remain as they are now, we are entering a decade of abysmal failures.