Loaded questions from PM for a tense Thailand: The Nation columnist

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (left) walks to a weekly cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 30, 2017.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (left) walks to a weekly cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 30, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

Suthichai Yoon

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - If Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha was trying to stir up a political hornet's nest by throwing in four questions for the public to respond to, he found his target with unerring accuracy. But then, that same tactic may also boomerang - and cause unnecessary harm to his political standing.

In his weekly televised address to the nation last week, the prime minister set off a storm by announcing he wanted to conduct a "public opinion poll" of his own with four basic questions, asking people all the way down to the district level to offer their responses.

Key figures from the country's major political parties were quick to voice the obvious suspicion - that General Prayut's latest move was clearly aimed at testing the water.

Is the ruling junta - the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) - making moves to extend its stay in power?

Wary politicians called for Prayut to clarify whether the general election would be held as scheduled.

The PM shot back with a vengeance, saying he wasn't talking to the politicians. He was asking the people to consider the future.

"Did I ask whether they wanted an election? No. Everything is still on track. The road map is still on," he told reporters in what was supposed to sound like an angry tone.

In his televised address, Prayut cautioned that the Thai people should be able to answer these four questions before the country can go to the polls.

The controversial questions:

1. Do you think the next election will get us a government with good governance?

2. If that is not the case, what will you do?

3. Elections are an integral part of democracy but are elections alone with no regard for the country's future and others right or wrong?

4. Do you think bad politicians should be given a chance to come back, and if conflict re-emerges, who will solve it and by what means?

The PM insisted that he did not want to see democracy fail in Thailand but would rather see a democratic government that practises good governance and is capable of leading the country towards sustainable prosperity and stability.

He then went on to say that he wanted to cultivate the values of democracy in the mindset of the Thai people, in order to help set a precedent for the country.

Stung by the "leading questions", politicians of all shades reacted with thinly veiled scepticism - verging on anger and disillusionment.

Phumtham Wechayachai, secretary-general of former ruling party Pheu Thai, said General Prayut did not seem to believe in voters' judgement or their ability to select a good government.

The politician said the problem with the country's governance system was caused by weak check-and-balance mechanisms.

He also had his own question for the public: Is it really desirable for the country to continue without an election?

Democrat Party politician Watchara Petthong also asked the junta head to "tell the public straightforwardly" if there would be a national poll, as required by the new Constitution.

"Why did the prime minister have to ask people? The Constitution sets all the necessary details," Watchara said. "I understand that the PM's move was aimed at sounding out the public and benefiting someone. Is it part of an attempt to stay on in power?"

Chart Thai Pattana Party key figure Nikorn Jamnong said yesterday he didn't think the four questions posed by the prime minister would bring any benefit to the government. He said the PM's move could very well raise political tension instead of encouraging "reform and reconciliation", which has been the main pledge of the coup leaders.

The implication was clear. The veteran politician said General Prayut and the NCPO's move could not be interpreted in any other way except that they were intent upon retaining power even after the next polls.

"You can get the clearest answers to those questions from the results of a general election," Nikorn said.

You can take it as a warning, a threat or a promise, but the most striking remark from the prime minister was when he told reporters: "If the country fails again, who will you ask to come to our rescue? Not me."