Conflicts of interest are eroding trust

Conflicts of interest are eroding trust

A real thing needs no footnote, they say. Likewise, an honest act shouldn't require a herald.

That Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has to repeatedly inform people he is not canvassing for votes every time he travels the country is therefore telling. If the PM is so sure of his honest intentions, why bother to go on and on with the pretext?

PM Gen Prayut has not formally thrown his name into the hat yet, but it is almost a foregone conclusion that he will run as an outsider candidate for the premiership in the next election.

Four ministers in his government have taken the helm of the Palang Pracharath Party, seen as a pro-military vehicle to nominate Gen Prayut for a second term.

These are Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana as the party leader, Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee as deputy leader, Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong as secretary-general and PM's Office Minister Kobsak Pootrakool as spokesman.

At first, the four ministers insisted that they would not step down. After criticism mounted about a possible conflict of interest and breach of the constitution which indicates that those in office must quit within 90 days of the charter being promulgated if they want to contest the poll, the ministers hinted that they would consider their next course of action "at an appropriate time".

For now, they can avoid being accused of abusing their authority by not using official time, state property or manpower for their political activities.

But is it enough for the cabinet ministers to barely meet the minimum when it comes to political etiquette?

It's one thing to claim you are qualified because of a technicality. It's another when you do it with grace.

PM Gen Prayut and members of his cabinet always claimed the moral high ground after taking over the country's administration from the previous, democratically elected government. Now is the time to prove his mettle, that he really is made of better stuff than them.

Alas, the PM and his government ministers seem to have failed the test.

The four ministers could say they still need to follow up on their work. They could claim they are capable of distinguishing between official duties and political ambitions. They could argue that rules are in place that will prevent them from using their positions to gain an advantage over other candidates.

Indeed, the ministers can come up with so many reasons to hang on to their posts but none of them matter. The truth is their staying in administrative power when they intend to compete with others for that same privilege constitutes a conflict in itself. They can't say that they won't take advantage of others because them staying there in the field ahead of the game is already an advantage.

Even if the law does not forbid it, etiquette demands they should have resigned from their posts as soon as they knew they were entering the poll.

They have to do so to prove their character. They have to show that they will play fair. But above all, they must forgo the ministerial positions to give the perception that the next election will be free and fair, that the result can be accepted by all sides.

The stakes are high. A failure to make the result of the next poll respectable could mean a return to chaos.

On a practical level, it does not even make sense for PM Gen Prayut or the four ministers to have the double roles. The only advantage is in using their incumbent status to make people more aware of their candidacies, but they risk a backlash if they do so.

Besides, Thai voters generally disapprove of people in power who still seek to gain an advantage over others. It's no game. This is especially applicable to PM Gen Prayut who is giving plenty of hints he could seek a second term. What is there to be timid about? Opinion polls suggest that the PM is far ahead as the preferred choice among poll participants to become the next prime minister. He has boasted that his government has done more for the country than those in the past. If the performance is so sterling, what is there to fear?

If PM Gen Prayut is serious about allowing a party to nominate him as its candidate for the premiership, he should do so with the grace of a gentleman and a leader. That way, he would not need to repeat a pretext everywhere he goes.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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