The Apec forum won't save PM's election hopes
published : 29 Mar 2022 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
'Whatever we do is seen by people as stupid." It will be ironic, if this statement, uttered in desperation and resentment probably in equal parts, goes down in history as the famous last words of former coup maker and prime minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.
The lament is such a contrast to the dignified: "I have had enough" that the late statesman and former PM Prem Tinsulanonda used to reject an invitation by leaders of parties winning the 1988 election to serve as the outsider premier for another term.
It will be ironic because the so-called Prem model of democracy -- a regime that is deeply conservative politically but pursues an aggressive economic growth agenda engineered by technocrats -- appeared to be an ideal that Gen Prayut wished to take Thailand back to.
As twilight seems to fall on the Prayut Government House, is the strongman pondering what has gone wrong? Why did his grand plan to attain glory, as much for the country as it is for himself, seem to have wound down into folly?
There is no question that Gen Prayut holds himself high, and his "selfless sacrifice" for the country even higher. But after eight years, what has the hero-wannabe achieved?
Forget the promised reconciliation. His pursuit of an extreme right-wing agenda complete with zero tolerance for any form of dissent has driven the wedge of divisiveness deeper into society. Under his watch, the relatively limited move to amend Section 112 or lese majeste law exploded into a full-fledged demand for reform of the monarchy.
With his Big Brother being called "General Rolex" and his former minister convicted of heroin trafficking in Australia (but arguing it was plain flour), the justice process of his administration appears to have been put on trial.
He often blamed the previous administration's use of populism causing failure in budgetary discipline. But his government has not been thrifty either. Despite borrowing more than a trillion baht, the economy remains in tatters. The much advertised high-speed train project is nowhere to be seen.
Minimum wages at 400-426 baht? A starting salary of 20,000 baht for bachelor degree holders? A 10% reduction for personal income tax? A 3,000-baht stipend for every pregnancy plus a 10,000-baht delivery allowance? These are some of the campaign promises made by his sponsor Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). Did Gen Prayut pick any of them up and make them come true?
Even lottery tickets remain overpriced despite his vow to have them retailed at 80 baht each.
Need we discuss the much bigger task of police reform?
Based on the House dissolution and new election timeline sketched out by Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, it appears Gen Prayut is banking on a chance to shine at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum that Thailand will host this November. If the forum, to be attended by superpowers including the US, China and Russia, could take place, Gen Prayut rubbing shoulders with the world leaders could boost his election status.
The PM seems particularly sensitive to criticism that he has not been completely accepted on the world stage because of his "dictatorship" past. Playing host at the Apec forum would go a long way to whitewashing any remaining coup stains while elevating his profile from a "provincial" leader to a cosmopolitan, internationally recognised one.
Gen Prawit earlier said the government could dissolve the House after the Apec forum and call a new election as a New Year's gift for the people.
With the Russia-Ukraine war intensifying, doubt has begun to form on whether the Apec event will be relevant or if it will be even able to take place.
With the spotlight from the international stage dimming, what will Gen Prayut have to convince voters that he is still their best choice? That the PPRP remains electable?
Considering how the Prayut government has fared over the past eight years, it's no surprise that a Nida Poll saw Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat as a more suitable PM than Gen Prayut. The scores were close: 13.4% to 12.6% with almost one-third of the respondents still undecided. But it must be unpleasant for the incumbent PM. Worse than coming second in the poll is his score is almost the same as the newcomer Paetongtarn Shinawatra who received 12.5% backing. It must also hurt that in the same poll, the PPRP received only 7% approval while the opposition Pheu Thai was ranked the highest with 25% backing followed by Move Forward at 16%.
It looks like Gen Prayut and the PPRP will have to do something if they are to return to power. But what can they do that will not be seen as "stupid?".
Columnist for the Bangkok Post
Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.