Thai junta likely to back another term for PM Prayut

Supporters of General Prayut Chan-o-cha believe that his appointment as prime minister provides stability to the government amid political division that has led to coups, street rallies and bloodshed over the last decade.
Supporters of General Prayut Chan-o-cha believe that his appointment as prime minister provides stability to the government amid political division that has led to coups, street rallies and bloodshed over the last decade.PHOTO: REUTERS

Military aims to dispel negative views of 'outsider premier' as major parties push for democracy

As Thailand gears up for an election next February, there are increasing signs that the ruling junta is preparing to push for General Prayut Chan-o-cha to continue serving as prime minister.

Thailand's military-drafted Constitution, signed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn last year, allows political parties to nominate an unelected leader from outside Parliament to become the head of government. The candidate would then need a majority of support in the military-appointed Senate and elected Lower House.

Several Cabinet members, including Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana, have announced their support for General Prayut to serve another term.

Several new political parties have also vowed to back Gen Prayut, though it remains to be seen how well they would fare in the election in the face of heavyweights like the Shinawatra-backed Puea Thai and the Democrats. Both have announced they intend to nominate candidates for prime minister from within their parties.

Neophyte politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who is heir to auto-parts maker giant Thai Summit Group, has also vowed that his newly-registered party Future Forward will reject a so-called "outsider prime minister" on the grounds that it is a non-democratic means to power.

The junta will have a say in the appointment of the Senate's 250 members, who will serve for five years. The kingdom now has no Senate and has been operating with an interim assembly after the last coup in 2014.

Thammasat University law lecturer Parinya Thewanarumitkul said for Gen Prayut's second term to become a reality, he must win support beyond the Upper House.

"If an outsider PM can secure 250 votes from the senators, he would only need 126 more from the Lower House to gain an absolute majority, or 376 votes out of the 750-seat parliament," said Dr Parinya.

The country's next leader will also need more allies in the 500-seat Lower House, which passes laws, to push through key legislation.

Independent scholar Sirote Klampaiboon said that by allowing parties to nominate an "outsider PM", the military government is aiming to "overturn the negative connotation" by emphasising that even though the prime minister is not a Member of Parliament, he will have full Parliament support.

The term "outsider PM" has been associated with abuse of power in Thailand. One example is when General Suchinda Kraprayoon became prime minister in 1992 after staging a coup the year before, according to Mr Sirote.

Gen Suchinda's appointment led to a popular uprising and government crackdown, known as Black May or Bloody May. The protests forced him to step down just weeks after he took power.

Thammasat University's Faculty of Political Science dean Supasawad Chardchawarn said Gen Prayut, who led the 2014 coup against then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, joins several others who assumed power through non-democratic means.

They include General Prem Tinsulanonda, the 97-year-old who currently heads the Privy Council.

Lawmakers named him prime minister in 1980 under a Constitution that did not require the premier to be an elected member of the legislature. His years in power, until 1988, were seen as a period of unprecedented stability.

In 1991, Mr Anand Panyarachun was appointed premier by coup leader Gen Suchinda to prepare the country for elections. Mr Anand was reappointed to the post in 1992 after Gen Suchinda stepped down.

General Surayud Chulanont was picked as premier after the 2006 coup. He served for two years.

Supporters of Gen Prayut believe that his appointment as prime minister can provide stability to the government amid political division that has led to coups, street rallies and bloodshed over the last decade.

Thailand has seen the military launch coups twice in the last 12 years - in 2006 and 2014 - after allegations that the democratically elected governments abused power.

But Mr Sirote argues that the majority of the public would still prefer to pick leaders through democratic means. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party and its reincarnations have won every election in Thailand since 2001.

"Since 2006, the democratically elected governments have been accused of abuse of power via House majority. But at the ballot box, a majority of voters do not take this into account at all," Mr Sirote said.

Dr Supasawad said those born after 1992 would find the concept of an outsider PM difficult to accept.

"I think the Thai public can accept if Gen Prayut will become a politician, but he has to play by the rules, not using his power to exempt himself from the rules," said Dr Supasawad.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2018, with the headline 'Thai junta likely to back another term for PM Prayut'. Print Edition | Subscribe