Election year befogged by suspicion

opinion January 17, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

Prime Minister Prayut must promptly clarify what he means by ‘Thai-style democracy’



Observing National Children’s Day at Government House this past weekend, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha talked to reporters about “Thai-style democracy”, but in his usual circuitous manner, raising more questions than answer as to what the country’s political future will be.

Pressed to define what he meant by the phrase, Prayut would only say that Thailand should be governed as “a democracy free from conflict”.

“Our country cannot afford any more conflicts,” he said. “We certainly must have democracy, but a Thai-style democracy. We must not break the rules. I ask all Thais to consider this.”

Prayut, who also heads the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta that seized power in the 2014 coup, said basic democratic principles must be instilled in younger people to ensure a stable future. 

While paying lip service to the need for further social development and make Thailand more competitive globally, Prayut argued that 2017 was a “year of peace and orderliness”, just as had every year since the coup. In line with authoritarian regimes around the world, Prayut was claiming that political stability was a form of development. 

But the development most Thais are waiting for is a democratic election. More than anything else, including freedom from conflict, Prayut must return the mandate to the people from whom he snatched it three years ago. The return to full democracy will be the catalyst Thailand needs to get back on track, to regain economic momentum and rejoin the world community of advanced and enlightened nations.

Prayut’s logic is flawed but simple: If we want stability, we need the military to continue playing a role in politics. It was the same reasoning that convinced a majority of voters to endorse the junta constitution in a referendum, but let’s not forget how exclusive that referendum process was. The result is likely to come back and haunt us. First, though, we need to know where Prayut stands regarding the next election. 

The charter gives 250 senators appointed by the junta the authority to vote alongside 500 elected members of the House of Representatives in the choice of the next prime minister. The candidate need not be a member of the party that wins the most seats in the Lower House.

The red carpet is already being rolled out for General Prayut to retain his post as premier without having to contest the coming election. The concept, perhaps unique to Thailand, involves the selection of an “outsider prime minister”. The term more often heard regarding other countries is “dictator”. 

In theory, Prayut should be permitted to seek public office if the NCPO was disbanded. The fact that the NCPO has shifted the ground rules in the military’s favour surely renders him unfit to stand for office, yet, when challenged on this point, Prayut hides behind nationalism and the importance of safeguarding political stability and national security.

Prayut has said he is no longer a soldier, but rather a politician. But he is still referred to as a general and he is very much still tied to the barracks. His troops stand ready to deliver what he wants. This arrangement can no longer be tolerated. 

And Prayut must recognise that, having hijacked the rules of the game, he cannot be considered a contender for high office.