New rules needed as endgame nears
Society is holding its breath as today marks the deadline of the anti-dictatorship movement's demand for embattled Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign. Will there be a confrontation? How will it end?
A week after the crackdown on peaceful demonstrators at Pathumwan intersection with the use of high-pressure water cannons tainted with unknown chemicals, the situation has evolved rapidly. With its heavy-handed approach to dealing with the situation seen as disproportionate, the government finds itself in hot water.
Since then, the protest movement has gained strength with each rally drawing large crowds. The "scattering star" strategy which has enabled the announcement of locations and times of protest events just minutes ahead of time using social media and encrypted mobile apps marks a first for activism in Thailand and has seen the state slow to adapt.
At the same time, the movement is under pressure to escalate its campaign where hitherto peaceful confrontations risk turning violent, particularly with the emergence of yellow-shirt demonstrations in some provinces. Some are being organised in coordination with coalition parties, but many are apparently organic groups who claim to find any challenge to the high institution intolerable. There have already been scuffles, albeit minor ones, between the groups at recent rallies at Ramkhamhaeng University and the Democracy Monument on Oct 14.
This movement appears different to those of past years with demands for previously unheard-of reforms being made leading to a genuine sense of uncertainty over how it will all end. Should everyone involved not tread carefully, there is the potential for civil war or another coup, both of which could see a calamitous loss of lives.
Let's look at possible scenarios.
Even though Prime Minister Prayut has dismissed calls for his resignation, were he to change his mind we would still be hamstrung by the 2017 constitution which requires each political party to propose a candidate. It's highly likely that Bhumjaithai, a major coalition partner, would submit Anutin Charnvirakul, who is now deputy prime minister and health minister; the Democrats would propose Abhisit Vejjajiva; while Chartthaipattana could be expected to stick with Kanchana Silpa-archa and Chart Pattana to opt for Suwat Liptapullop.
The opposition bloc's list will see Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, Chadchart Sittipunt, and Chaikasem Nitisiri (Pheu Thai); Wan Muhamad Nor Matha (Prachachart); Sereepisut Temiyavet (Seri Ruam Thai).
A charter such as this one that favours those associated with the old Prayut regime, as it requires the successful candidate to get at least 376 votes in parliament, including support from the Senate, could see Mr Anutin emerge as a frontrunner. Although he stood aside after the 2019 election, seeking only the DPM role, it will be a different story if Gen Prayut resigns.
It should be noted that many would accept Mr Anutin in the role given his success with medical cannabis and links to the country's coronavirus fight. He also has strong connections with the oligarchs, while the Bhumjaithai Party has extensive support in the provinces.
Although the intensity of the protests may subside if Mr Anutin rises to power, they almost certainly won't disappear altogether. Activists will still continue to press for the release of their detained comrades as well as reform of the monarchy, something Mr Anuting would never accept. So, even if he was to speed up the process of amending the constitution, he could still ultimately find himself faced with a similar situation as Gen Prayut.
Any scenario which sees the government opt for a violent crackdown against the pro-democracy movement will put an end to Gen Prayut's legitimacy with the public. There may then be a push for a national "unity government" with an outsider taking up the PM position to bring about an end to the crisis. This scenario is possible as Section 272 of the charter and allows for anyone able to secure two-thirds of parliamentary votes to assume the role.
But while the country remains deeply divided, an acceptable non-partisan candidate may be hard to come by. Besides, the Move Forward Party and Progressive Movement group have ruled out this form of government on the ground that will still be engineered by the oligarchs and is unlikely to support reform of the monarchy. Without support from the Move Forward Party, Pheu Thai will have to distance itself from this option.
Given the number of uncertainties surrounding a change of government, Gen Prayut may resist calls for his head, believing himself to still be the best man to restore at least an illusion of peace and stability. He would be likely throw his support behind the charter amendment process when parliament resumes on Nov 1, with an eye on making sure the new political rules are at least perceived to be fair.
Although the prime minister has tried to ease conflict by revoking the state of emergency, he must now see to it that the authorities unclench their iron-fist with regard to handling the protest and its leaders.
Any strategy that stokes further tensions between yellow-shirt royalists and the pro-democracy movements could see Gen Prayut coming out of the affair as a loser, especially if violence results.
A compromise may be for Gen Prayut to roll out a new political roadmap in which he announces a clear time frame when he will finally relinquish power, after having been at the helm since the 2014 coup.
For much of that time, the military regime did all it could to ensure that once a general election became unavoidable, the deck was sufficiently stacked in its favour to ensure victory. The biggest bone of contention is, of course, the current make-up of parliament with its unashamedly regime-leaning Senate.
Monday's extraordinary session of the House is a chance for the political system to begin regaining the public's trust by working to find a solution to the current crisis. And the debacle of the past six years should leave no one in doubt the country needs new democratically implemented rules for its political system. For without them, the cycle will only repeat itself.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.