Thai Junta Leader Prayuth About to Fall?
Public weary of pompous strongman
After eight years as prime minister after heading a 2014 coup against a democratically elected government, it is starting to appear that without some extraordinary finesse by Thailand’s Constitutional Court, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha could actually lose his job when his constitutionally mandated term ends on August 24 – next Wednesday – sources in Bangkok say.
“It’s difficult to predict now as there are many factors to be considered,” said a former top government official. “But basically there is rising sentiment that he has been around too long and that corruption in the military has finally begun to sour both the public and the ruling elites in Bangkok.”
Nonetheless, the 68-year-old Prayuth has proved a wily strategist over his years in power, managing constitutional revisions through malleable courts to engineer a seemingly airtight government apparatus, neutralizing opposition parties, and surviving several no-confidence votes in the National Assembly by passing out favors to power-hungry splinter parties.
Thailand’s politics, however, depends on a series of opaque factors including whether the erratic King Maha Vajiralongkorn tires of Prayuth, who is considered pompous and out of touch. Vajiralongkorn is said to favor Apirat Kongsompong, another former army commander-in-chief who has grown close to the 70-year-old king, who spends most of his time in Germany.
Prayuth is also beset by rival army officers including the elderly Prawit Wongsuwan, who controls the main military party Palang Pracharat — Prayuth’s own election vehicle — as well as smaller splinter parties, some the senators, and even some constitutional court judges. So he could sway the parliament to drop Prayuth, and even influence the constitutional court to rule against Prayuth’s third term. Anupong Poachinda, the interior minister, is also said to be out to bring down Prayuth despite loud public protestations of loyalty.
“Sometimes the military is on the same page as the palace,” the source said. “But when the military becomes too strong, the king acts as a check and balance. Prayuth has served as prime minister for too long and the palace may be wary of him and his cronies. It is still difficult to tell.”
In addition to its endemic corruption, the military is widely considered to have mismanaged the economy. Last year's growth of 1.5 percent was the slowest in Southeast Asia and while tourism is expected to bounce sharply, the government has only slightly revised its 2022 economic growth forecast, to 2.7-3.2 percent
In a scenario that would have been unlikely even a few months ago, the possible beneficiary to return to the government is the Pheu Thai Party, a surrogate of the exiled tycoon and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was driven from power by the military in 2006 but who continues to wield influence from his perch in Dubai. Pheu Thai, formerly headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, is now effectively in the hands of his daughter Paetongtarn, who was appointed last October as chief of the Inclusion and Innovation Adviser Committees. That means the party is in Thaksin’s hands despite distance and his age, 73 years.
The constitution makes it virtually impossible for any forces other than the military to hold power given that the 250-member Senate is entirely appointed by the military. The National Assembly, the lower house, has 750 members, 500 of which are elected directly the other 250 being the Senate members, giving the military a near lock on power unless there is an overwhelming national vote to kick them out.
Pheu Thai and what was then the Future Forward Party plus smaller affiliated parties managed to win a bare majority in the most recent national election. But Future Forward was disqualified on a pretext and Prayuth, with the help of so-called “cobra” parties willing to sell out to the highest bidder, managed to put together a winning coalition. The result was a paralyzed parliament that got little done and further alienated the public
Ironically, it was Prayuth himself and the junta that designed the Constitution that now limits his time in office, supposedly to keep another leader like Thaksin, who remains extremely popular throughout much of the country, from remaining in office. Under it, a prime minister’s term is limited to eight years, regardless if the terms were consecutive. If Thaksin were to return, his service as prime minister from 2001 to 2006 would be held against him.
But it is now Prayuth who is being held to the eight-year limit. As Asia Sentinel reported in early August, he is in no mood to relinquish his position and is seeking to leave the Constitutional Court for subterfuge to stay in power. But his power is eroding. Even the so-called Super Poll, which skews badly for the government, found that 55 percent of respondents thought he lacked self-control and was easily angered or petulant and 51.5 percent thought he had been around too long.
The opposition to Prayuth is said to be fragmented within the royalty and the military, which may be used to derail Prayuth’s hopes for an extension, on which the constitutional court must rule before August 24, when his term as prime minister ends.
“The court has to obey the palace should the latter want to drop Prayuth,” a source said. “No one can tell for sure how the court will decide. There is another possibility that, if Prayuth thinks the court will not back him, he may dissolve the House and seek another mandate from the general election. The picture is not so simple to present in a coherent manner.”
If the court ends Prayuth’s term, or if he does dissolve the assembly and calls an election, Pheu Thai and its allies appear to hold the upper hand although an array of splinter parties with no discernable political philosophy other than getting in on the spoils complicates matters.
It should be noted that in Thailand, the elites and the military would find a pretext to cancel any popular government. Pheu Thai and the youth-oriented Move Forward may be able to garner enough votes to win, but in effect, they would have to rule within government parameters. The phenomenally popular Chadchart Sittipunt, the pro-democracy candidate who won the Bangkok governorship in a landslide in June, has galvanized the electorate by actually working to govern the chaotic city. But unofficially he is on short notice not to become too popular, sources say, or he will be deposed. Pressure is likely to continue to find reasons to disqualify him, the sources say.
Since Thaksin upended the political system in 2001 and became prime minister, the military and Bangkok’s elites have been consumed with getting rid of him despite the enormous popularity he earned through populist social programs built to benefit the country’s millions of rural poor.
Although he was deposed in a 2006 coup and driven into exile, Thaksin remains phenomenally popular. To thwart him the powers that be have used the country’s supine courts to overthrow a series of surrogate governments. From 2008 through 2014, the junta and royalist Yellow Shirt faction fomented continuing political violence that was used to drive Thaksin’s sister Yingluck from power and eventually into exile via court action that convicted her of corruption, as the courts had against Thaksin himself.
The idea that Pheu Thai might actually be considered to be allowed as a viable leader of a coalition to return to power speaks to the weariness of the ruling elites of Prayuth and his coterie.