Will that mysterious 'outsider' be Thailand's next PM?: The Nation columnist

Thailand's PM Prayut Chan-o-cha at the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator on July 16.
Thailand's PM Prayut Chan-o-cha at the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator on July 16. PHOTO: AFP

Suthichai Yoon

The Nation/Asia News Network

Nobody is quite sure how and where he stumbled upon the political crystal ball. But Mr Paiboon Nittitawan, the outspoken pro-establishment activist, is already predicting the outcome of the next general election.

Mr Paiboon, a member of the legislative assembly, has declared his intention to set up a new political party, called the People's Reform Party (PRP), that will "clean up politics", since the quality of the current crop of politicians is just so deplorable that only outsiders like him can jump into the ring to shake things up.

If that wasn't enough of a stir for political circles, Mr Paiboon soon threw another bomb into the arena with a bold prediction for the post-election scenario: Each of the major parties - Pheu Thai and the Democrats - will see their number of seats in the Lower House reduced by 20 per cent.

In the last general election in 2011, Pheu Thai won 270 seats and the Democrats 160.

If Mr Paiboon's wild forecast is accurate, Pheu Thai will lose 54 seats and the Democrats 32 - a combined loss of 86 seats.

The real outcome might not follow this pattern, though, because the electoral system laid out by the new Constitution contains significant differences from the version in the 2007 charter. But for political observers, Mr Paiboon's forecast provides a basis for further interesting speculation.

Mr Paiboon's next big prediction is that none of the names on the party lists of either major party would be able to clinch the premiership. The reason he gave was simple: Neither Pheu Thai nor the Democrats would be able to mobilise the simple majority of seats across both Houses required to ensure their respective nominee's victory.

Under Article 159 of the Constitution, the parties would need to muster more than 375 votes in Parliament to achieve that elusive goal.

This is where the "second question" in the referendum - on allowing an appointed Senate to join the vote for a new premier - comes into play. And this is why the issue of "an outsider as prime minister" has become the hottest debating point in the past few months.

If no candidate achieves a majority vote under the Article 159 process, a "provisional clause" under Article 272 would trigger the alternative route. Under those circumstances, a joint parliamentary session would be held where a non-MP could be nominated as new premier.

If that scenario should come to pass, Mr Paiboon believes General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the current prime minister, would be the only "appropriate" candidate.

The numbers game would become the deciding factor in the whole exercise: The new House of Representatives will have 500 members while the Senate (to be selected rather than popularly elected) will have 250 members for the first five years. The total number of Parliamentarians will therefore be 750, half of which is 375.

If Mr Paiboon is right, the largest block of votes will be the 250 members of the Senate, appointed by the powers-that-be, while the political parties, even with their combined voting strength, won't have enough to vote in an elected MP as the next prime minister.

But things aren't necessarily as simple as depicted by Mr Paiboon, whose proposed party - even if formed in time for the new polls - can't be expected to win sufficient seats to make a real difference to the composition of the Lower House.

Variations on Mr Paiboon's calculations could come in many forms: Pheu Thai could join hands with small and medium-sized parties to push for their man to be next PM. The Democrats could manoeuvre into a position of strong bargaining power without winning a majority in the House.

Rumours are flying that at least three medium-sized parties - Bhum Jai Thai, Chart Thai Pattana and Chart Pattana - could play a critical role in changing the landscape of politics if they decide to play the "middlemen card" by supporting an "outsider" for new premier.

But my advice is: Trust no one, check every rumour and remain calm and sceptical. Things could turn out to be either much more complicated than the ongoing speculation - or else just another case of "the more things change, the more they remain the same".

Timing might turn out to be everything. 

Gen Prayut was recently asked by reporters whether he could be the mysterious "outsider"forecast to become premier after the election. His answer underlined the "complex simplicity" of Thai politics, which is enough to confound even the most experienced political guru: "There are many people who are more qualified than me. Go and find one of these people first. If that fails, then come and talk to me."

It wasn't a clear "Yes" - or a flat "No".

Those political observers who don't want to be caught flat-footed making bold predictions would be wise to heed the advice I offer every friend who has sought enlightenment on this issue: Believe no one, trust your instincts and never say never.