Thai Strongman Prayuth Plays Coy on Electoral Campaign

Since the announcement by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, prime minister and leader of the junta, that a general election would be held in February 2019, registration of new political parties has begun in earnest. Noteworthy among these aspiring political parties are those that make no secret of their pro-military stance and their support for Gen. Prayuth, who has adopted an equivocal stance about his intention to remain in power for another term.

Thailand has been in political paralysis since May 22, 2014, when the army, led by Prayuth, launched the country’s 12th coup since 1932, establishing the National Council for Peace and Order, a junta in all but name, to govern the nation. Political gatherings have been banned, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, have been chased out of the country.

Backed by the Bangkok elites, who were alarmed by Thaksin’s empowerment of the rural poor, the junta imposed strict internet censorship and took control of the media, using the country’s draconian laws to gag all dissidents. A constitution tightly drafted to retain military control remains in place.

Nonetheless, residual affection continues for Thaksin, whose surrogate political parties have won every election since he was ousted despite efforts by the elites and the military to throttle them through the courts and other methods.

Prayuth’s recent activities such as “roaming cabinet” meetings in Isaan, or up-country, the bedrock of continuing support for Thaksin, and the ‘absorption’ of former MPs from different parties, betray Prayuth’s ambition to seek a second term. He prefers to stay within the comfort zone of ambiguity rather than taking a plunge into untested waters.

The roaming cabinet meetings, including one in Buriram Province in Thailand’s obstreperous Isaan can therefore be seen as a campaign to gauge the extent of public support for Prayuth as well as bona fide but disguised electioneering to woo political parties while denying other political parties the right to engage in political activities. Moreover, Prayuth’s appointment of the leader of the Phalang Chon Party as adviser to the PM is also seen as a move to win provincial votes. Phalang Chon is headed by Sonthaya Khunpluem, a former tourism minister in Thaksin’s government and the son of Somchai Khunpluem, better known as Kamnan Poh, one of Thailand’s most notorious crime bosses – and one of its most influential quasi-politicians.

In an inescapable cycle of recurring military governments and coups d’etat since Thailand’s democratic transformation of 1932, it is not surprising to see the frequency of military parties and military-backed political parties emerging at intervals in the continuum of beleaguered democratic development. It is to be expected that3 miitary parties, formed with the prime intention of continuing the military grip on power by legal means upon the expiry of their assumption of power by illegal means, will play a role in the coming election as well.

Thus it is unsurprising to see that pro-military parties have taken part in the registration process with the Election Commission in anticipation of Prayuth’s eventual decision to return. These parties include (but are by no means limited to) the Reform People Party, the For Thai Nation Party, the Great Mass of People Party formed by the very person who led his “great mass of people” to terrorize the country and destabilize the government of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck from 2013 to 2014 as a prelude to the military coup, and the Public State Party whose leadership position is deliberately left vacant, pending the decision of Prayuth to fill the vacancy.

Emboldened by a slew of support from the newly formed military party, pro-military parties as well as established parties that have no scruples to play identity politics, Prayuth can now be more effusive in exuding his style of self-righteousness and be more assertive in his quest for a second term. Prayuth’s grand axis can pose an existential threat to the dominant Pheu Thai Party, the second reincarnation of Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party. These surrogate Thaksin parties, supported by Thailand’s rural areas, have won every election, against all odds and under hard-pressed circumstances laid by the militarists.

Given the scenario that his “green wave” sweeps across the country and his military party and its allies can muster a majority in the Lower House, Prayuth could well receive party endorsement to become prime minister. Failing that, he can always invoke the exceptional clause in the junta-crafted constitution of 2017 to be elected as a third-choice unelected prime minister. In a run-up to a possible general election in April 2019, the military party can indeed be a game changer.

With the military party joining in the fray, the political landscape is never the same again. In a new political equation, it is no longer the Pheu Thai Party pitted against the Democrat Party as has been the norm. In a not-so-bizarre scenario, it is the Pheu Thai Party alliance trying to hold off the military party axis, plus some turncoats. The Democrat Party (paradoxically a misnomer) may be consigned to be a king-maker, throwing its weight to tip the scale in either direction.

Be that as it may, the above scenarios do not take into account the dynamics of politics and the electorates. Four years of a strong dose of pseudo-democracy have produced many undesirable side effects and has increased the people’s appetite for a real democracy with equitable empowerment long denied to them. If and when the ban on political activities is lifted by the junta, the floodgate could open for free-flowing opinions and debates that could present a nightmare for the junta.

Elections can bring out the best in the candidates but it can also expose insatiable greed of the militarists and parasitical caricature of the politicians. It can unveil a raw display of Machiavellian politics and condescending attitude of the Thai elitist establishment who shuns every notion of empowering the marginalized poor because of their ‘low quality’ votes. Voting is a sacred right of all Thais regardless of their creed, social and economic status. Can the upcoming election truly reflect the will of the people or will it guarantee the continuance of tyranny in a genetically modified form?

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Chile and Ecuador. He currently lives in Bangkok.