Gen Prayut's uncommon dictatorship

Gen Prayut's uncommon dictatorship

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (far right) performs a wai to Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda left, in yellow) during a pre-New Year gathering on Dec 27. (Bangkok Post file photo)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (far right) performs a wai to Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda left, in yellow) during a pre-New Year gathering on Dec 27. (Bangkok Post file photo)

When confronted with the contention that Thailand's upcoming election is rigged and manipulated, the insiders and advisers of the Thai government will say otherwise. They argue that this poll is no more rigged than its predecessors and the incumbents and power holders of the day will naturally and understandably arrange for constitutional laws and election rules to be written to suit their interests and boost their poll chances. Some of this rationalisation is true, but most of it is self-interested hogwash.

As Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has insisted, it is true that incumbent governments in the past did not resign while contesting elections. This happened with the governments of Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011 and 2014 -- the latter later invalidated. It is also true of earlier governments harking back to 1980s and 90s all the way to the Thaksin Shinawatra period in the early 2000s.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

In fact, that ruling governments oversaw elections in which they had a vested interested in winning has been a bone of contention. It has been argued by many that an incumbent administration during the electoral process should be in caretaker mode, with the routine running of the country delegated to permanent secretaries of the various ministries. The idea is that there should be no conflict of interest between those in government and those contesting for power in the electoral arena.

This conflict of interest was worse before the 1997 constitution when a separate Election Commission was set up to wrest away power and authority over poll organisation from the Ministry of Interior. After the EC came into being, the election process has ebbed and flowed. The initial EC during 1997-2001 was the most credible and effective. Since then, the EC has been increasingly politicised and swayed by the winds and machinations of Thai politics.

So the idea that incumbents should not oversee an electoral race in which they are running has gone nowhere. To this extent, the Prayut government is similar to its predecessors.

The difference has to do with the source and nature of power the Prayut government has at its command. This government seized power by the force of arms in a military coup and has ruled directly for nearly five years with absolute power under Section 44. It has alarmingly deviated from coup governments of the contemporary past.

For example, both the coup governments of Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon (1991-92) and Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin (2006-07) installed caretaker cabinets who had considerable autonomy. Neither Gen Suchinda nor Gen Sonthi became prime minister. Both of their interim prime ministers, Anand Panyarachun and Gen Surayud Chulanont, were keen to leave office when election time came.

This coup government formula dates even further back. In the 1980s, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda was an unelected prime minister but he supervised a semi-technocratic cabinet in a semi-democratic system, sharing power between the army and elected politicians. Gen Prem never held absolute power with intent to manipulate polls to perpetuate control. By August 1988, after eight years in office, Gen Prem immortalised his departure with his "I have had enough" parting shot.

The same can be said of earlier military dictators throughout the 1950s-70s, back when fighting communism in the Cold War precluded and superseded elections and democratic rule. Back then, military dictators always let technocrats and experts run the macro-economy.

The problem with Gen Prayut is that he wants to be a dictator and needs to be a democrat at the same time because he wants to keep power. His rule is thus controversial because he has run the country like an autocrat but yet now has to appear publicly appealing as an aspiring politician. His cabinet once passed for being technocratic but it has morphed into a political party.

As a military strongman in government, Gen Prayut does not compare well with his forebears because he does not delegate to policy experts. As an aspiring politician, he has to put up a lot of pretences about wanting elected office but not wanting to get there the democratic way. This is why he is caught between a rock and a hard place, kicking and screaming all the way to the poll, which he tries to ignore but wants to win somehow.

While conflicts of interest between incumbents and elections they want to win are common across governments, Gen Prayut's uncommon dictatorship of having absolute power and not delegating to autonomous capable hands, while aiming to perpetuate his rule after the poll, makes the charter laws and election rules appear blatantly rigged and manipulated.

Those who drafted the 1997 constitution were drawn from nationwide provinces and diverse experts. This is why the 1997 charter is still seen as popular and legitimate. Those who wrote the 2007 charter were appointed by coup-makers whose leader, Gen Sonthi, ran for office in due electoral process. But those who were appointed by the current junta to concoct the 2017 constitution have come up with rules to directly place popular rule under military custody and to favour Thailand's latest military dictator as elected prime minister.

The twisted charter formula of 2017 may work for a while to enable Gen Prayut to stay in power but he may not last long because the constitutional provisions are so restrictive that they are likely to lead to a parliamentary stalemate. It has taken a lot of huff and puff, and pain and agony, at high costs to society and economy for Thailand to go in circles and end up at square one. But perhaps the winds of politics are blowing in new ways and new directions to a new era where popular rule might ultimately carry the day with military dictatorship at bay. While some will say such thinking is too optimistic, it is necessary and tempting because there is no better alternative.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.


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