published : 27 Aug 2016 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
MR Sukhumbhand is drawing little sympathy, although few are attacking him publicly v The Democrats are at a crossroads over Abhisit's referendum stance v For now, the fiery debate over senators selecting an outside nominee for PM is in abeyance
Fate is inthe balance
The suspension of Bangkok governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra under a Section 44 order issued by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has come as little surprise to many executives of local governing bodies who have suffered a similar fate of being ordered to step aside.
In fact, many of them feel the governor's suspension is long overdue given that the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) some time ago forwarded its findings into claims of spending irregularities in the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration under MR Sukhumbhand to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).
This left them wondering why the Bangkok governor was given the latitude to remain out of danger for so long compared to what they have gone through.
As soon as the Section 44 order suspending the governor was issued, several former MPs of the Democrat Party, of which MR Sukhumbhand is still a member -- albeit an estranged one -- came to the conclusion that the law of karma was in operation, according to a party insider.
Despite MR Sukhumbhand being disowned by many members of his party after a prolonged period of unhappy relations, many others have decided it prudent not to let their personal grudges against the Bangkok governor be known publicly, which could backfire on the party.
They keep in mind the proverb "never hit a man when he is down", as they realise that many Thai voters will not approve of those who insult or mistreat someone who has suffered a setback like the city governor.
At least, MR Sukhumbhand is still a party member, and a two-time Bangkok governor elected under the Democrat ticket.
So, when asked to comment on the Section 44 suspension of the governor, some Democrat members have said publicly that they feel much sympathy for him.
However, they also said the suspension order underscored the need for public-office holders to keep the public's best interests close to their hearts, according to the party source.
MR Sukhumbhand is facing a growing list of accusations and complaints including misconduct in a 16.5-million-baht office renovation, alleged budget misspending and collusion in the infamous 39.5-million-baht New Year light show, the 22.9-million-baht CCTV procurement, alleged collusion in the BTS skytrain 13-year contract extension and alleged lack of transparency in the procurement of musical instruments worth 1.3 billion baht.
The allegations are being investigated by several agencies, including the OAG, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Department of Special Investigation.
MR Sukhumbhand is suspended from work until further notice and will not be paid during his time off, according to Gen Prayut's order.
MR Sukhumbhand was on an official trip to South Korea when the suspension order was issued on Thursday. A source said he has acknowledged the order and will cut short his trip.
An NACC sub-panel has concluded its probe into the 39.5-million-baht light show and is preparing to forward the findings to the full commission. The NACC is expected to rule on the case in the next few months.
If the NACC rules that there are grounds to the accusations of irregularities against the governor, he would be suspended from duty anyway. The case will then follow the normal judicial procedures which, according to some observers, is more acceptable than exercising the Section 44 order.
Stuck in limbo land
The political situation may seem relatively calm in the aftermath of the Aug 7 referendum, except for a bit of a commotion over the Senate's role in selecting a prime minister after the next general election.
But for the Democrat Party, some ominous noises are emerging over party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva's public declaration before the referendum that he would vote "no" to both the draft charter and the extra question of the Senate, according to a source close to the matter.
His critics feel Mr Abhisit may have put his leadership of the party at risk for his declaration which, as it turned out, failed to read the will of the people on Aug 7. The referendum result saw a wide margin of votes for both the draft charter and the second question.
These critics also suggest that while Mr Abhisit meant well in expressing his opinions about the potential quagmires in the draft charter and the extra question, there were complications which the Democrat boss should have given more consideration to.
One political source said there was a big risk that Mr Abhisit would be perceived by Democrat voters as being opposed to them through his rejection of the draft charter. That could hurt the party's support base. Already, some Democrat supporters have made critical remarks about Mr Abhisit speaking his mind before the referendum.
A Democrat source said there also have been suggestions by some members for the party to hold an election for leader. By doing that, Mr Abhisit could step aside and then be voted back in as party leader -- a move that would renew his mandate as the boss while showing the electorate that he remains firmly in charge.
But the National Council for Peace and Order's ruling that bars political parties from holding meetings or internal elections is still in place, thus limiting any political manoeuvrings.
The party source said the time has come for the Democrats to undergo internal reform along the lines of suggestions made by political experts that take into account the fact the MP election system being introduced by the new charter will put large parties in danger of being shrunk.
The major parties need to set themselves well apart from each other by offering new and more acceptable policies.
The party source said some members agree that any reforms will require contributions from the old guard who have either left or stayed away from involvement in the party in recent times. One of those who might be approached for help is Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat secretary-general and former leader of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).
Mr Suthep, who is now chairman of the Muan Maha Prachachon for Reform Foundation, remains widely respected by Democrat members, although he has quit the party and vowed never to return to politics.
The source said any contribution by Mr Suthep to the party's fortunes, if needed, would prove useful in helping prepare the Democrats to take on the new political and electoral challenges presented by the new charter, which will soon be promulgated.
The source said some former Democrat MPs have also approached former finance minister Tarrin Nimmanhaeminda to take part in advising the party on an economic manifesto to woo voters in the next election.
The battle for prime minister
To have or not have an "outsider" prime minister in the next government threatened to split the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) down the middle.
Although the tension which had built up around the heated issue of whether the appointed Senate should have the power to nominate a prime ministerial candidate outside of those on the lists drawn by political parties is easing, there is still a lot of bitter division.
The issue of the Senate being involved in the selection of a prime minister was approved in the recent referendum, but it was interpreted by some NLA members to mean that senators, who will be hand-picked for the first five years of the next administration, can also nominate a candidate.
However, the CDC has decided it will adjust the draft charter in strict compliance with the wording of the second referendum question: that is, MPs will have the exclusive right to nominate the candidates, which doesn't sit well with many lawmakers.
Although certain NLA and CDC figures deny there is a conflict, the fact remains that barbs have been exchanged between people who traditionally hold common views on many political issues.
One prominent academic who has taken a beating from the controversy is the respected political professor Khien Theerawit.
Early this week, he found himself in the firing line over an article circulating in the social media. The title, "An Outsider Prime Minister: Is He or She Not a Thai?" was potent enough in the eyes of some critics to deserve attack.
Mr Khien listed five "outsider" and non-elected prime ministers since 1977: Gen Kriengsak Chamanant, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, Anand Panyarachun, Gen Surayud Chulanont and Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. He compared them to the elected prime ministers in the same period: Gen Chatichai Choonhavan, Chuan Leekpai, Banharn Silpa-archa, Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Thaksin Shinawatra, Samak Sundaravej, Somchai Wongsawat, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra.
He then asked who, between the outside or elected prime ministers did most for the country. He said it was "clear as day" that the outside premiers of the likes of Gen Prem and Mr Anand did a great deal for the nation.
He also credited Gen Prayut with trying to salvage Thailand from being a divided country, although the political prospects in the foreseeable future are unclear.
Mr Khien said the only "inside" prime minister he could think of who possessed integrity was Mr Chuan, who formerly led the Democrat Party.
He also took a swipe at Mr Abhisit, whom he called a skilled orator and a man of principle who was well-suited to lead a mature democracy. But he had problems with resolving crises, one glaring example being the red-shirt siege of the Royal Cliff Beach Resort Hotel in Pattaya which was the venue for the Asean Summit in 2009.
Mr Khien said he used to believe military coups were an evil not having any conceivable legitimacy. However, he changed his mind after witnessing political parties cheating in elections to secure their place in the corridors of power, defrauding the country and abusing the law while condoning cronyism.
One critic who claimed to be a former student of Mr Khien penned a reply to the article on a news website. The writer chastised Mr Khien for radically changing his tone from that of a staunch believer in democracy to an admirer of dictators.
Other critics said the article was laced with bias and which clouded the logic and sharpness Mr Khien is widely known for.