Prayut could earn points if he quits as PM

opinion February 19, 2019 01:00

By The Nation

There’s nothing fair about an election in which one candidate is the incumbent national leader wielding tremendous power

Thai politicians have a tendency to speak favourably about legality, but sometimes fail to apply it across the board, knowing it could come back to undermine their party’s agenda or, worse, haunt them personally.

Many of them came down hard on the Thaksin Shinawatra-affiliated Thai Raksa Chart Party for nominating Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister. Some called for the party to be disbanded, citing legal principles and the tradition of the Royal Family remaining above politics. But where is the same recognition of legal principles when it comes to other parties and other candidates, particularly incumbent Prime Minister and junta chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha?

Prayut led the military coup nearly five years ago that brought down an elected government, making a show of deep reluctance at having no other option. He was sacrificing himself for the sake of the country, he said, echoing the woeful spin uttered by every coup plotter as well as every top political figure. He needed to put an end to the street battles between protesters loyal to and opposed to the Thaksin regime.

The National Council for Peace and Order, after a string of delaying tactics, is now about to hand the mandate back to the people to choose a leader. Prayut, after a string of equivocations, would like to return as premier, time with the electorate’s blessing. 

What might have given Thai politics a fresh start with a clean slate is instead soured by Prayut’s decision to remain in office up right until the election. If he had any sense of fair play, he would have stepped down the moment he formally accepted the Phalang Pracharat Party’s nomination of him as its PM candidate. He did not, shunning the normal rules of play. His arrogant decision only added insult to the injury imposed when the junta rewrote the Constitution to ensure the military – rather than returning to the barracks, mission accomplished – would remain a potent political force for at least the next two decades.

If Prayut had been elected to the office he now occupies and was preparing to retire, he could have comfortably stayed in place as a lame duck prime minister. But he was not elected and isn’t leaving the scene anytime soon, and meanwhile he is a candidate for the highest office with the full power of Article 44 at hand. The electoral situation is hardly what you would call a level playing field. 

Prayut ought to show respect for democracy and resign as premier immediately. In declining to do this, he is behaving like every other strongman, seizing power by force and then manipulating the rules and elections in his own favour. There can be no pride in clinging to authority in this manner. Victory in an unfair election is no victory at all. Should Prayut win, his legitimacy will remain forever in doubt.

Prayut has another means of earning broader support among the populace. He could reform the armed forces, perhaps beginning with an acknowledgement that Thailand has far more generals that it needs and that the military in general is too large, a drain on the national coffers. If Prayut couldn’t find the heart to do this as junta chief, perhaps he can as a full-fledged politician.