BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The furious horse-trading now underway following Sunday's election leaves the military with a stark choice: join the scramble for power, or act like a professional army and butt out of the civilian democratic process.
Plainly, the junta will exhaust all means to extend its rule through its electoral wing, Phalang Pracharat, despite winning fewer seats than the opposition Pheu Thai.
Phalang Pracharat appears to have won the popular vote, but this gives it neither legitimacy nor a mandate to form the new government.
Under the current parliamentary system, only the number of seats won in the House of Representatives matters.
Prior to the election Phalang Pracharat exploited its junta links to coax parties to join its camp. But its failure to win a simple majority in the lower house means wooing partners will now become more difficult.
While the junta-sponsored charter stipulates that agreement by more than half of the Senate and House of Representatives combined is needed to install a new prime minister, his or her government would need a simple majority in the lower house alone to support the administration.
To hoist General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who staged a military coup to seize power in 2014, into the prime minister's post, the junta needs only 126 votes in the lower house since it will already have 250 hand-picked senators in its pocket.
In contrast, if Pheu Thai, whose election win gives it the legitimacy to form a government, wants its candidate to become PM, the party needs to collect at least 376 votes from both houses. Unless the anti-junta camp gets unexpected backing from some senators, it needs almost all parties in Parliament (minus Phalang Pracharat) to support its proposal.
That scenario is possible only if the military remains neutral.
For the past five years, military top brass have lent the full weight of their support to the junta, whose leaders are effectively their supervisors and commanders.
Senior military officers occupy powerful positions in the ruling structure of the junta, known formally as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and in the national strategic committee.
And, of course, they will be picked in significant numbers for the Senate. Prayut's deputy Prawit Wongsuwan has the authority to handpick the senators and has said he will not select anyone he cannot command.
Though the junta has co-opted the military to support its rule, it can no longer claim the Army has a legitimate place in politics. General Prayut is unpopular across large swathes of the country while his deputy Prawit declined to run for election after his high-profile luxury watch saga.
The two generals have no right to call on the military for political support.
Army chief Apirat Kongsompong made a mistake just prior to the election by siding with the junta. He betrayed a lack of professionalism and abject failure to respect the voice of the people when he let anger over a proposal to cut the defence budget get the better of him.
His outburst cleared any doubt about the military's lack of neutrality in politics.
However, the people have cast their ballots, and the civilised world does not accept the legitimacy of the bullet.
It's time for the Thai military to do its duty and act with professionalism, respecting the principle of civilian supremacy.
This is what the military in a modern state is supposed to do.
For nearly a century, the Thai military has maintained an appalling reputation for political intervention. The result has been a vicious circle of election and coup.
The 2014 coup led by General Prayut brought nothing good for the country.
This fact along with Sunday's election results should be enough to convince most neutral observers that Prayut should step aside from politics.
Military chiefs should say goodbye to their former boss and return to barracks.
He simply has no electoral legitimacy to continue in a post he initially seized by force.
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