Thai Premier Prayuth’s Honeymoon Period Wanes

Government faces domestic and external problems with no real answers

By: Pithaya Pookaman

Barely six months since Thailand’s military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was sworn in, its stability has been rocked by a series of political scandals, the latest one the parliamentary vote on the 2020 annual budget, which the government managed to pass by a slim majority on January 11. 

The opposition, led by the Pheu Thai Party, immediately cried foul and lodged a court challenge contending that the MPs from the ruling coalition who were recorded as having voted in favor were, in fact, absent during the vote. If the petition is upheld by the Constitutional Court, the budget vote would be considered invalid, prompting possible resignation of the government.

Reeling from the budget scandal, the government is faced with a myriad of domestic and external problems for which it has no real answers. Firstly, the Wuhan coronavirus has put Thailand in the world spotlight after it was found that eight people had already been infected with an additional 84 suspected cases.

The situation was compounded when the Director of Phra Mongkut Hospital, a passionate admirer of Prayuth and an ardent militarist, suggested any patients who did not share his ideology wouldn’t be admitted to his hospital. His utterance and his lack of professional integrity had gone unnoticed by the authorities.

Adding to public dismay over Prayuth’s cabinet, some of whom critics say are either incompetent or have criminal records in narcotic dealings, the public is frustrated with the MPs from the ruling parties as well as senators who have benefited from the nepotism prevalent under Prayuth’s rule. 

One such case is an encroachment on public lands, a crime that carries a heavy jail sentence, by Pareena Kraikupt, a firebrand MP from the ruling party. In what is seen as an internal feud within the unwieldy 19-party ruling coalition, the Deputy Agricultural Minister, under whose purview the land in question is, has been reluctant to let his fellow MP off the hook too easily. But it is expected that the MP’s Teflon coating will see her through the scandal unscathed.

The government’s apparent incompetence has also manifested itself in its mitigation of the country’s drought, tap water saltiness and the haze caused by air pollution, which has hit the PM2.5 level at which health is endangered, and which has inflicted respiratory ailments on tens of thousands. Prayuth’s government has no workable long-term mitigation measures to deal with the air pollution or the drought problem in the northeast. Prayuth has failed to spell out specific policies to tackle the problems. It appears he simply wants to leave the matters at the mercy of the nature and pray that fate would look kindly upon them. 

With Bangkok virtually at sea level – and sinking as groundwater is drawn down and climate change contributes to rising sea levels – sea water is seeping into the Chao Phraya River from which the city’s tap water is processed and distributed, Prayuth simply asked the people to boil tap water to rid it of bacteria while unwittingly ignoring the fact that it would increase the salt content. His off-the-cuff comments have blown up in his face, with social media featuring caricatures of him as Pinocchio, the fairy-tale dummy whose nose grows longer with each lie.

On the economic front, Prayuth’s beleaguered coalition faces global headwinds from decreasing world market demand, diminishing exports, increased competition from neighbors and a looming trade war. The first five years of Prayuth’s rule have had left the country’s economy in tatters, due particularly to the shrinking GDP growth, dismal export performance, wider income disparity, lack of confidence among investors, high inflation rate, and falling agricultural prices which seriously affect the livelihood of the majority of the people.

The Asian Development Bank has projected Thailand’s economic growth to be 3.2 percent in 2020, a slight increase from 3.0 percent in 2019 but still one of the lowest in Asia. However, first-quarter growth is at 2.8 percent, the weakest annual pace in more than four years. The previous Prayuth administration tried to achieve economic growth by using economic stimulus policies such as the Eastern Economic Corridor and Thailand 4.0 growth strategy but, over time, these had somehow lost steam. The present government has earmarked US$10 billion for stimulus for agriculture, tourism, SMEs, and low income earners as well as visa exemption for visitors from China and India. 

The Tourism Minister is seriously toying with the idea of cash handouts to foreign tourists, perhaps taking cues from the government’s populist policy of domestic cash handouts. However, it is doubtful if such a package could spur domestic consumption and the economy as a whole, given propensity to tighten belts in the face of economic uncertainties. 

The University of the Thai Board of Trade has just released figures showing Lunar New Year spending this year is the lowest in 12 years. While the government is pushing for a better transport system to stimulate the economy, the high-speed rail system first proposed by The Yingluck government eight years ago has never got off the ground. Meanwhile, Bangkok’s mass rapid transit fares are considered among the most expensive in the world and out of reach for ordinary Thai commuters.

Since Prayuth launched the 2014 coup (the 12th successful one since 1932 coup that instituted constitutional monarchy) which toppled the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand has degenerated into an authoritarian state supported by the bureaucracy and the elites. 

Under pressure from the international community and the Thai people, the junta reluctantly permitted a clearly rigged general election in 2019 but only after many delays and under a self-perpetuating constitution that guaranteed the continuation of its stranglehold on power. The post-election regime is, in reality, an extension of Prayuth’s authoritarian government by other means.

Although Prayuth’s cabinet includes politicians from previous democratic governments, they are merely the icing on the cake to camouflage the true nature of the government, which is insensitive to the people’s needs and grievances. It is out of step with the 21st century world which values freedom of expression, democracy, and accountability. 

Prayuth himself is out of step with the country’s economic woes and must resort to bluffing his way to sidestep problems, often with threats. Widespread rumors have abounded for months in Bangkok that Prayuth could be gone by May or June, to be replaced by the current chief of the Thai military, Apirat Komsompong although the lower-level movements that would take place in such a replacement so far haven’t appeared, making the rumors dicey. 

As he tries to navigate an uncertain political landscape with his slim lower-house margin, he can count on the junta-appointed 250-member Senate, the Constitutional Court and junta-dominated “independent organs” such as the Counter Corruption Commission and the Election Commission, et al to stay in power. 

When Prayuth recently warned: “Don’t get bored with me, I will stay for quite a long time,” he was certainly not joking. It is a clear indication that he was confident to serve out his present prime ministerial term, ending in 2023.

The government’s razor thin lower-house majority also could spell trouble if the government tries to actually legislate. Thus, to buttress his slim majority, he lobbies behind the scenes to attempt to recruit opposition defectors, popularly called “political cobras,” via cutthroat money politics and injecting huge cash into ruling party candidates for vote buying in by-elections with some success. 

He has resorted to shock tactics, seeking the dissolution of opposition parties. Trumped-up charges against the Future Forward Party (FFP) headed by the charismatic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is a case in point. The Constitutional Court displayed rare judicial integrity by throwing out a weak case against the FFP but its real test will come if and when other charges are placed. 

Prayuth cannot afford to rest on his laurels for long in face of the opposition onslaught. A no-confidence motion is looming. The honeymoon he has enjoyed since the 2014 putsch may be waning as the government’s incompetence, rampant corruption and political scandals are taking their toll. Prayuth will soon realize that “staying for quite a long time” as he had once proudly touted will not be as comfortable as he would have hoped.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok