Popular Prayut in pole position

politics August 29, 2016 01:00


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PM ideally placed to keep top job after poll in a coalition with other parties.

THAI political history since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 has seen military intervention from time to time. Army leaders often had reasons to stage a coup – be it government corruption, uncontrollable unrest, abuse of power, and even disrespect towards the monarchy.
All of the 13 successful coups over the past 84 years left a military legacy and influence on politics.
However, the 13th power seizure – in May 2014 – has more complicated implications on politics than before. The first coup occurred in 1933, just a year after the country abolished the absolute monarchy.
The latest chief coup-maker, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is now prime minister, seems to be very popular and has gained support from political groups to prolong his tenure. Also, thanks to several clauses in the new constitution to be promulgated soon, the military’s influence will remain on politics beyond the next general election, which is expected late next year. 
Prayut seems to be so sure of his popularity that he offered late last week to return as prime minister after the next general election.
“Even though the work gets harder and I am not paid for doing the work, I will be pleased to stay. But I will stay through democratic means and in a dignified way, although I don’t know now how that will come,” he said on Friday.
Veteran social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, formerly a visiting professor at Cornell University, expects the military to retain its power beyond the next election.
“The military will still play a role in Parliament, as it has been over 84 years with 13 coups in total,” he said.
Sulak, 83, noted that most coups were staged based on civilian government corruption scandals and parliamentary turmoil. He blamed the frequent coups on a desire by the elite and the middle class to overthrow elected governments that they view as corrupt despite strong backing from grassroots people.
Just days after the military-backed draft constitution sailed through the August 7 referendum, former senator Paiboon Nititawan disclosed a plan to set up a new political party that he said would specifically support General Prayut to become the next premier.
Recent polls point to Prayut being popular among a great number of people because of his impetuous and earnest personality. The general’s supporters will be key to helping him secure the top spot after the next general election.
The next election is viewed as the junta’s attempt to restore democracy. Nevertheless, critics do not expect the next elected government to function efficiently. They suspect the current powers-that-be to continue steering the country behind the scenes through the new Senate, whose 250 members will be appointed by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
Wanwichit Boonprong, an expert in security affairs at Rangsit University, said the current situation reminded him of 1979, when then unelected prime minister General Kriangsak Chomanan got his main support from the Senate, which accounted for three-quarters of the Parliament. However, Kriangsak had to resign less than a year after assuming office due to disunity in the coalition government and a lack of support from a majority in the House.
Like the constitution in Kriangsak’s time, the new charter to be promulgated later this year also allows an outsider (non-MP) to be prime minister, Wanwichit noted. The difference this time, he said, was that section 52 in the new charter stipulates that “the armed forces shall be used for the interest of the country’s development. No constitution in the past had empowered the military this way,” he said.
The security expert said that with a new constitution backed by the military, the country could be assured of no coup in the first five years after the next election. This means there will be political stability during that period, when the military will dominate Parliament via their senators, who will also have the power to vote with elected MPs in the selection of new prime ministers for five years.
With his popularity among some elements in society, Prayut is viewed as a strong candidate to become the next premier. But support from 250 Upper House members will not be sufficient to ensure a smooth rule for a non-MP government head. He will also need backing from political parties with seats in the 500-member Lower House.
Political observers are convinced that some small and medium-sized political parties such as Bhum Jai Thai, Chart Thai Pattana, and Chart Pattana are keen to support the military after the election.
A Bhum Jai Thai source said the party positions itself as a “humble party” that would not go against any rival political bloc. He said the party would welcome an opportunity to be part of the next coalition government.
The party has acknowledged the possibility of “an outsider” becoming the next premier and it has prepared itself for that, according to the source, who declined to elaborate how.
Chart Thai Pattana, in contrast, does not strongly believe that Prayut will be the next prime minister, according to the party’s key adviser Somsak Prisanananthakul.
“It is too early to jump to a conclusion who the next prime minister will be. It should be after the election when we will see things clearer and can figure out who is going to take the top seat,” he said.
The veteran politician expressed confidence that political parties would be able to muster a majority in Parliament and unite to nominate a PM candidate who will be a politician rather than an outsider.
One of the two major parties, the Democrats, is also likely to back Prayut if he becomes a PM candidate, although Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said the next PM should gain support of the majority of the House of Represent-atives rather than the Senate.
Political analysts said Democrat politicians with healthy relationships with the military could help negotiate for the party to be part of a Prayut-led coalition government. Former Democrat MPs who were part of the now-defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee have good ties with the military and could act as a “bridge” to connect the party and the military in the Parliament, they said.
Some Democrat ex-MPs quit the party to lead street protests against the previous government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Almost all want to rejoin the party and contest the next election as Democrat candidates, party leader Abhisit told The Nation recently.
Democrat deputy leader Ongart Klampaiboon said the country’s oldest party aimed to win most seats in the Lower House and wished to be part of the next coalition government rather than the opposition. 
The other major political party, Pheu Thai, is likely to see defections in the run-up to the next election as its politicians are split between those who lean towards the military and those who disagree with that, observers said.
The party has been dominated by the Shinawatra family, under the leadership of former premier Thaksin, who has lived in exile overseas since 2008 and recently felt the heat from legal actions taken against people close to him during the post-coup government’s tenure. Many Pheu Thai politicians view defections as a good option due to the Thaksin camp’s “gloomy outlook”, the observers said.
A Pheu Thai source, however, said the party was unlikely to back a government leader with a military background due to its stance against dictatorships. “If the next Pheu Thai leader and key members opt to support an outsider from the military to be prime minister, many party members will resign,” the source said. 
Former Pheu Thai MP Anudit Nakornthap suggested that the party find a new leader willing to compromise. A flexible leader would be expected to be a balance between elected politicians and the military, he said.
Anudit also said politicians had to avoid conflict that could provide the military with an excuse to overthrow an elected government again.