Much More Rope For Thai Premier Prayuth?
Junta leader looks for ways to circumvent constitutional deadline
By: Pithaya Pookaman
As the constitutional dateline of August 24 approaches for Thailand’s leader Prayuth Chan-ocha to end his premiership, questions abound over whether the former junta leader can legally extend his job for an unprecedented third term.
The 2017 constitution that Prayuth himself wrote after successfully staging a military coup in 2014 to overthrow Thailand’s democratically elected government limits the tenure of premiership for two consecutive terms. But after surviving many attempts to unseat him through parliamentary censure debates and revolts within his ruling coalition, he is in no mood to relinquish his position.
Prayuth has sent out feelers to the public and also possibly to the palace about his undisguised desire to maintain his stranglehold on power, imploring for an extension to fix all the nation’s problems, as if he was unable to do so during his previous eight years in office. He has often said that the nation cannot do without him, the kind of narcissism that is repugnant to most Thais.
Prayuth’s track record is nothing to be proud of. The first few years of military dictatorship eroded the country’s standing on the world stage.
With the soft sanctions imposed by western powers for staging a military coup with attendant abuses of freedom and human rights, Prayuth turned to like-minded countries such as China, Russia, and Myanmar for support. He then tried to deceive the world as being a democratically elected PM through farcical elections and with the help of 250 senators he handpicked. Under his watch, Thailand’s economic predicament has gone from bad to worse, registering the lowest economic growth in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and with national debt rising to unprecedented levels. Investors’ confidence is at its lowest ebb as foreign investment and production capacities are either transferred or redirected to Vietnam and Indonesia.
Thailand’s reputation within ASEAN and on the international stage during Prayuth’s administration had also suffered from its cozy association with the ruling junta in Myanmar, particularly the junta’s leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was accorded state guest status when he visited Thailand along with a royal decoration from the king and an audience by Thai Buddhism’s supreme patriarch.
Prayuth turned a deaf ear when Myanmar executed four pro-democracy activists, which sparked international condemnation. Much to the chagrin of the Thai people, he also defended Myanmar when its air force intruded into Thai territory, causing destruction to nearby Thai areas. Thailand’s favorable disposition toward Myanmar meant that ASEAN, which depends on consensus, was unable to enact a crisis resolution plan for Myanmar.
At the onset of Covid-19, the Prayuth government showed its ineptitude and lack of transparency by securing low-quality Chinese vaccines through shady deals while also allowing Chinese tourists to enter the country without adequate Covid control measures. Public health safety took another tumble when the government recently legalized the use of cannabis without enacting safety regulations. The ruling coalition party, the Bhumjai Thai Party which spearheaded cannabis legalization, hopes to benefit from the US$10 billion cannabis industry, seeking to make Thailand the pot capital of the world without regard for public health safety.
Prayuth is more than happy to oblige his coalition partner in order to stay in power as he badly needs Bhumjai Thai, which commands 33 House seats.
During his eight years in power, the military has moved repeatedly to use the courts to snuff out popular youth movements, and to hold in check the appeal of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai opposition. Despite falling popularity, Prayuth is not expected to relinquish his power any time soon or in the foreseeable future. As he wrote his own constitution, he can also make amendments to it to allow him to extend his tenure or refer the matter to the subservient constitutional court to rule in his favor. If another general election is to be held, he can always rely on the support of his hand-picked 250 senators and manipulate the MPs by giving cash handouts and other incentives to vote him back to power.
But the next general election won’t be a walkover as the newly energized opposition Pheu Thai Party is expected to put up a good showing and may even come close to securing a majority in the House. And if a wild card like the Move Forward Party can increase its share of House seats, Prayuth may have reached the end of the rope, save for the prerogative of the king that can save him the day.
As Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the king often plays an important, if not a decisive, role in determining the choice of the prime minister and other high-ranking officials. Since the transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand’s politics has been dominated by three forces – the monarchy, the military establishment, and the people. During most of the 90 years since, the monarchy and the military have been the dominant forces.
Thailand had its first taste of democratic rule when Thaksin Shinawatra won a general election by a landslide in 2001. Thaksin’s populist policy was well received by the people but not by the palace. Although his popularity enabled him to win a bigger landslide in 2005, it did not sit well with the palace. His government was overthrown by the military coup that ushered in another military government preferred by the palace.
In retrospect, any prime minister, be he military or civilian, can be toppled if not on the same page with the palace. Moreover, even if the prime minister was a staunch monarchist there is always the risk of having too much entrenched power and influence if he served too long and extends his tentacles into all aspects of political life.
Prayuth has served the palace well by providing lavish funds and amenities for the king and members of the royal family while safeguarding the monarchy by ruthless application of the country’s anti lese majeste law, considered the world’s most severe. But Prayuth’s eight years as head of government may be viewed by the palace as too long. Notwithstanding the favors he has showered on the king, his statecraft and performance have been an utter failure. Members of his family and his cronies have enriched themselves and occupied important positions in the country.
However, if Prayuth is dispensable, there are not many alternatives left for the king. Prayuth’s big brother and deputy PM, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan is not well-liked by the palace. Compared with other likely PM candidates, Prayuth may still be the best available choice. The Thai people may yet have to resign themselves to the prospect of seeing the same old faces for at least another four years.
Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.