PM shows he has political resilience
Half-way through his four-year term, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has time and again shown his staying power in the face of popular discontent. Despite a subpar economic performance and persistent controversies from his cabinet's incomplete oath of office and a cabinet minister's past drug conviction and imprisonment in Australia to his own house on army premises after retirement, the former army chief, who led the military coup in May 2014 to take over as prime minister, has proved politically resilient.
As no budget bill or censure debate appears able to topple him, Gen Prayut also has shown no sign of calling it a day after more than seven years at the helm, the last two after the March 2019 poll. The main implication from Thailand being stuck with Gen Prayut indefinitely is that the country's near-term political future is likely to be tumultuous and turbulent due to pent-up and mounting grievances that are being systematically suppressed. As Thailand's political malaise, economic slump and social disenchantment intensify in view of worsening pandemic hardships, the longer the Prayut-led government stays in office, the more popular pressure will gain momentum.
Yet there is no available means to change government at this time. As Gen Prayut's key bases of support still hold, while oppositional forces remain weak and fragmented with the electorate becoming increasingly unhappy, Thailand's next change of government will probably be in the first half of 2023 when an election is due. By that time, it would not be surprising if a political crisis ensues as there will likely be efforts from incumbent centres of power to concoct and contrive yet another coalition government to do their bidding, headed by someone in the obeying mould of Gen Prayut, if not the military strongman himself for yet another term.
Changes of government from parliamentary parameters look unlikely. By past standards, the kind of coalition government Gen Prayut now heads would be accused of parliamentary dictatorship because its strength in numbers render debates and motions moot. Government MPs ultimately toe party lines in order to keep cabinet portfolios and perquisites. Being in government means having access to budget outlays and pork-barrel projects, not to mention the traditional commissions and strings that go with them.
As a rule of thumb in Thai politics, coalition partners generally stick with the ruling party and sitting cabinet. The current budget debate is a case in point. Under Gen Prayut's leadership, Thailand had been running budget deficits in the hundreds of billions baht per year on average even prior to Covid-19. The pandemic only made deficit-spending worse, it didn't cause it. The Prayut government has now jacked up public debt to nearly the legal ceiling of 60% of GDP.
As junior coalition partners, the Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties made noises about reduced spending for public health and steady expenditure for the defence ministry. But when it comes to voting time, they end up supporting the Palang Pracharath Party-led government. The Democrats have argued that they "can do more for the Thai people" being in government rather than out of it. Despite public criticisms of his Covid-19 handling as public health minister and Gen Prayut's centralisation of power away from the health ministry, Bhumjaithai leader and Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul seems glued to his cabinet chair.
The incentives and benefits of being in government simply override principles. Pulling out of the ruling coalition and contesting a new poll risk losing cabinet places in a new government.
For the current opposition parties, they are out of power by design because they opposed the 2014 military coup from the outset. They also have been stymied by constitutional bodies, such as the Constitutional Court, the Election Commission, and National Anti-Corruption Commission. The Constitutional Court, for example, dissolved the third-largest winning Future Forward Party and effectively cut its MPs by one third under the successor Move Forward banner.
Other agencies, such as the Ombudsman's Office and the Anti-Money Laundering Office, have also gone quiet. These agencies unsurprisingly had the bulk of their commissioners and judges appointed during the recent coup era. Prior to the 2014 coup, they seemed more active and assertive, taking up and investigating this and that case, the most salient being the rice-pledging scheme of the Yingluck Shinawatra government.
The opposition, primarily Pheu Thai, Move Forward, and Seri Ruam Thai parties, perform accountability and checks-and-balance functions as much as they can but they can only go so far due to a lack of parliamentary numbers. Unless a coalition partner pulls out, the Prayut government can stay on until the four-year clock runs out.
Thing were different in the past. In contemporary Thai politics, coalition withdrawals in the 1980s and more recently in 1995 and 1996 led to new polls, returning the mandate to the people. In 1997, the sitting premier resigned, enabling the then-opposition to form a government. Government coalition dynamics have changed in the past two decades.
The coups of 2006 and 2014, the new constitutions and the shift of power towards the military have made the playing field less even and more lopsided. It meant that when the military took over in 2014 and took matters into its own hands, the generals would be in charge for good. Elected politicians had to fall in line. If they wanted to partake in the spoils of government in a country with a weak society and even weaker checks and accountability mechanisms, then there is no other way than to stay and stick with the ruling coalition.
Backed by the incumbent centres of power with enough elected politicians in the government's stable, while oppositional ranks that recently included the youth-led student movement lack momentum, Gen Prayut is likely able to muddle day by day to the last syllable of his four-year term. At issue will be when the time comes for potential change in early 2023. The piled-up public unhappiness will be immense in view of a slow economic recovery and accumulated government incompetence and mismanagement. Although cathartic change can happen in the interim, the time around the next election is likely to see Thailand either perk up or sink inexorably downwards.
A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY
A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.