Anti-regime? Join the opposition ranks

Anti-regime? Join the opposition ranks

Incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Cha-o-cha looks set to make a comeback, leading a coalition that may hardly function. Pawat Laupaisarntaksin
Incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Cha-o-cha looks set to make a comeback, leading a coalition that may hardly function. Pawat Laupaisarntaksin

Five years after it seized power in May 2014, Thailand's military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has achieved what it envisaged.

By seeing to it that a constitution was drafted to keep political parties and elected politicians weak, and the agencies that hold them to account strong, the junta is poised to form a post-election coalition government with the support of a military-dominated 250-member Senate it appointed and the second-largest-winning Palang Pracharath Party, which it set up.

In turn, the main anti-junta parties -- Pheu Thai, Future Forward, and Seree Ruam Thai -- are being tempted to outflank the pro-junta side by allying with other parties to come up with a bicameral majority of 376 MPs in the 500-member Lower House.

The goal would be to marginalise and "turn off the switch" on the 250 senators, whose votes for incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha would then be rendered ineffective. However, this would be a mistake. The anti-junta parties should bide their time and play a longer game, publicly opposing a pro-junta coalition government but ultimately letting it happen.

Any coalition government that takes shape will be unwieldy and unruly, fractious and fragile, because the election results are fragmented and polarised. Neither the pro- or anti-junta side would be able to govern with a firm and stable grip.

Under the 2017 constitution, and with incumbency advantages, the pro-junta camp should have had a stronger showing, while the anti-junta side should have ended up with a weaker hand. But neither is the case, and hence would lead to imminent stalemate in law-making in the Lower House.

As elected politicians have not been in power for years, the chances of them abusing their power and yielding to graft would likely rise as the government gets under way. The squabbling, jockeying and horse-trading since the March 24 poll is already reminiscent of the bad old days, when elected politicians were geared towards vested interests and private gains.

This political wing or that party faction vying for this or that lucrative cabinet portfolio can only erode public faith and undermine the credibility of elected representatives.

In fact, the delay in a Palang Pracharath-led coalition formation most likely stems from the haggling over portfolios. The pro-Prayut party needs the medium-sized Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties to join it, but both would probably only go along with this if they were put in charge of certain ministries. For Bhumjaithai, in particular, the transport portfolio would seem a quid pro quo for any coalition membership. This is because extensive and costly infrastructure projects currently in the pipeline will involve government procurement and private sector bidding, including the duty-free concessions at Thailand's main international airports.

When the newly minted Future Forward and Seree Ruam Thai parties, with 80 MPs and 10 MPs, respectively, call and manoeuvre for a coalition government of 376 MPs or more to keep Gen Prayut out and the Senate at bay, they are doing it out of principle.

The two parties, which shot up from nowhere to oppose the junta's rule, are willing to sacrifice cabinet roles for their anti-NCPO stand. Pheu Thai also opposed a junta-backed government but its stance stems more from traditional politicking with an eye for governing opportunities than anything else.

On the other hand, when the Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties distance themselves from Gen Prayut and his party, this most likely derives from seeking improved bargaining positions for better cabinet roles.

If the FFP and Seree Ruam Thai succeed in cobbling up a bare Lower House majority for the sake of neutralising the Senate, they will end up with an unworkable government that includes small parties and a dozen single-MP banners.

That kind of government would not be able to get much done; rather, it would exhibit bickering and divisions the public would soon grow tired of. As these two parties are and have the upside potential to provide a way forward for Thailand, they should sit this one out and let the Prayut-led PPRP form a government.

Such an outcome would do justice to the unbalanced and biased rules embedded in the constitution. These are the rules the ruling generals wanted to have. So let them claim their post-poll power and have these rules to deal with.

An army-backed and junta-supported government under Gen Prayut would face strong opposition. The numbers suggest the opposition bloc -- comprising the three main anti-junta parties as smaller allies -- could amount to nearly half of the Lower House.

That means a Prayut-led coalition would be inherently unstable in the legislature and may not last long. As old-style elected politicians have been out of cabinet action for years, they may become prone to graft, nepotism and conflicts of interest sooner rather than later. The Thai electorate of all stripes needs to further see the downside, and the cost of having a military-influenced government, before it can appreciate the upside of a democratic future with proper checks and balances.

New parties chasing a more democratic future like Future Forward and Seree Ruam Thai would do better as the opposition, and learn about parliamentary ways, playing a scrutinising and accountability role. Pheu Thai would be a key ally in such an undertaking, but the way forward for Future Forward and Seree Ruam Thai may be qualitatively more progressive and integrity-driven than Pheu Thai's.

As Pheu Thai has been left out of things for the last five years, it has little to lose by joining the opposition. Future Forward and Seree Ruam Thai also have little to lose because they have never been in government, let alone been elected. Being among the opposition would serve them better than being in the government.

Let the junta-appointed Senate choose Gen Prayut and let him rule over a coalition government. And let's see where that goes and how long it lasts. This is a time to let the generals further undermine themselves. It is also a time for civilian leaders to forge public trust and a collective understanding of how and where Thailand needs to go.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

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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