Hopes fade of calmer political climate
After brief yet fierce political turbulence, it seems Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has consolidated power in the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), with hope of another term as premier.
His series of field trips to PPRP-controlled areas -- as if to convince people he is now in full control -- is seen as a sign of a new political game with a House dissolution on the horizon, now that he is more confident of his political advantage.
His confidence is derived at least partially from a pledge of support from Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, in his capacity as PPRP leader, who declared two weeks ago that his "brother in arms" still remains the party's choice as PM. At the same time, the government spokesman said Gen Prayut has accepted the party's candidacy and will allow the people to make their own decision about whom they want as the leader.
Electioneers and politicians have taken these events as signs that Gen Prayut and the PPRP are gearing up for an election. Each party is trying to focus the spotlight on its candidate for premiership -- Jurin Laksanawisit (Democrats), Pita Limjaroenrat (Move Forward Party), Anutin Charnvirakul (Bhumjaithai) and Korn Chatikavanij (newly formed Kla Party).
Yet, there is a dilemma: if Gen Prayut opts for House dissolution, it means the ongoing charter amendment process which currently has a draft pending royal endorsement, will be back at square one. Gone will be a plan to go back to the single-ballot election system, much to the delight of small parties which enjoyed political windfalls during the last elections with the strange seat calculation of the Election Act. Such windfalls will not reoccur as the single-ballot system favours large political parties, the Pheu Thai, PPRP and Democrats, in particular.
Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of the Thai Pakdee Party, has vowed to nullify the single-ballot poll system proposal, stipulated in the charter draft, and is preparing to file the case with the Constitutional Court via the Office of the State Ombudsman. If the single-ballot system is in place, all 11 small parties could face extinction, while parties with fewer than 10 MPs would also struggle hard.
In fact, some PPRP members are against the return of the old election system themselves for fear that it will give Pheu Thai and parties affiliated to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra an advantage. But less they forget, Thaksin parties have won all the elections in both systems. It also beat the PPRP, albeit by a smaller margin, in the 2019 election.
It could be said there is no consensus in the PPRP when it comes to how to deal with the Thaksin camp. Some conservative factions in the party are less worried about a more conformist Pheu Thai Party, than they are the MFP under Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit which is seen to be too radical. Although other party members view Pheu Thai as more the formidable foe since the MFP's proposals for institutional reform seem to have hit a dead-end. If the arch enemy wins by a landslide, it will have the legitimacy to form a government.
While no one can be sure of Pheu Thai Party's political clout, Gen Prayut may think he has the upper hand over his rivals with regard to the role of military-appointed 250 senators who can vote for his premiership for another four-year term. Yet, it's up to the election results as well.
Besides, dissolving the House right now may not be an astute move, given a decline in Gen Prayut's popularity following the administration's poor performance in Covid-19 control, with fresh waves of the pandemic hitting the country hard, and a subsequent economic downtown causing many job losses.
The current infection rate, while stable, remains high. People are well aware that the pandemic might have been avoided had the government secured vaccine supplies sooner. The hope for herd immunity has been dashed.
And now flood problems are adding to the administration's crisis.
Gen Prayut cannot be certain that House dissolution right now would place him in a better position. For one thing, the eight-year curb on a prime minister's tenure could be a burning issue.
Assuming his term as head of the junta which staged 2014's coup is legally considered part of his term, his eight years in power must end by Aug 24 next year. His supporters have argued that his leadership of an interim government until 2019 should not be counted and the eight-year limit is not applicable in Gen Prayut's case, while his opponents disagree and are to seek a ruling from the Constitutional Court. The wait for a legal interpretation is an unbandaged political wound that his opponents will gleefully widen during the election campaign. It's likely his opponents will its stress legal complexity, should the PPRP win the election, particularly how Gen Prayut, with a legal case pending, may not be a good choice for the premiership.
Though political activists seem to be subdued at the moment, the next election will give Gen Prayut's opponents an opportunity to re-ignite their campaign to uproot the so-called Prayut regime as well as the contentious political mechanism that was set up during that time. Not to mention that Gen Prayut has no excuse with which to distance himself from political problems he is part of, many if which began the day when he took the power in 2014.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.