Eighteen-month countdown to Thai election remains touch-and-go: The Nation

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at a welcoming ceremony for Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in Bangkok on Nov 2.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at a welcoming ceremony for Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in Bangkok on Nov 2.PHOTO: AFP

(THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Only about two weeks before he told a gathering of youngsters that the next general election will be held 18 months from now, Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha had told another audience: If national reconciliation doesn't take place, the election may not be held.

What, then, is the real story?

In other words, what does "reconciliation" mean in this context?

On a separate occasion, another senior member of the government, Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda, had said if real reform did not materialise, holding an election would only return the country to the chaos that preceded the coup.

"Reform" and "reconciliation" have become the two main conditions for the "road map", in line with its 6+4+6+4 formula. But who has the final say on whether those "conditions" have actually been met?

"Reform", regardless of how one defines it, won't be "completed" within 18 months (or even 18 years, for that matter) since it is after all a continuing process that defies definition. In fact, one could argue that holding an election after the coup would be a significant sign of reform in itself.

But, of course, the country remains divided on almost every major political issue. There will be those who insist that if the country remains divided, going to the polls would simply push the nation back to the kind of confrontation that brought about the political street violence. And that might provide another excuse for another coup.

The other side would be ready to counter with the argument that the longer the coup leaders run the country, the more divided the country will become.

Therefore, returning power to the voters would at least free the country up so that the people could choose their representatives, who should realise their main duty would be to resolve the problems that had led to this dismal state.

"Reconciliation" is an even more delicate precondition for holding the next election. What has to happen before reconciliation becomes a reality?

There are very few people who fall into the category of being "neutral" in the current political landscape. You are either against the coup because it put the country back years, or you think it was a "necessary evil".

Those who weren't on talking terms because of their political differences remain uncommunicative today, since the scene remains unchanged despite hopes that after such a dramatic change of events the country could hit the "restart" button.

The main reason why "reconciliation" has failed to take off is the widespread feeling that there are "winners" and "losers" in the ongoing political game. The mutual suspicion is deep-rooted and for many, it's nothing but a zero-sum game.

Can we then hope that the content of the new constitution being drafted by a second panel will pave the way for a new set of rules that will at least begin to address the questions of reform and reconciliation?

That's not very likely either. For a start, the debate over the electoral system has convinced politicians from major parties that efforts are underway to dilute their post-election influence in favour of medium-sized and small parties.

Conspiracy theories abound, as was only to be expected. One such theory holds that the constitution drafters are following the playbook of the powers-that-be, who are intent upon retaining power via a number of small parties.

Another theory says that the new mixed-member proportional representation system proposed by the Constitution Drafting Committee will pave the way for the introduction of an "outsider" as prime minister.

How that might actually come about may be a mystery for most citizens unfamiliar with the manipulation of electoral gimmickry. But knowledgeable observers insist that political sleight-of-hand is at play and that nobody should underestimate the ability of political manipulators to pull off even the most unexpected tricks.

Now you know why even the most experienced political analysts in town aren't betting on the 18-month countdown to election day.