Curtain falling for old power cliques
With public anxiety growing over the future of Prayut Chan-o-cha in the role of prime minister, society has become shrouded with rumour and speculation.
Friends and foes of the embattled leader have their own reasons to support their beliefs on whether the 68-year-old former army-chief-cum-politician will survive the biggest challenge of his political career.
On Thursday, the Constitutional Court sought the minutes of the Constitution Drafting Committee's (CDC) meeting which discussed Gen Prayut's controversial tenure as it accepted the opposition's petition on the matter, which cited the spirit of the 2017 charter when it introduced an eight-year tenure limit on any prime minister to prevent too much concentration of power.
The opposition bloc is confident that the final curtain will fall for Gen Prayut this time. Its supersized conviction is based on the court's decision early this month to suspend him from duty, while considering the case.
History, and the charter court's standard, suggests that a suspension may be followed by a tough verdict. Of course, this is a challenging case for the court and we will no doubt see much division in the highly anticipated ruling.
It should be noted that both sides of the power spectrum have leaked crucial "secret" documents, particularly those submitted by Gen Prayut and Meechai Ruchuphan, who was head of the CDC, which they believe would help secure a favourable ruling.
According to the leaked document, Mr Meechai told the charter court this week the count should begin on the day the current constitution took effect, which is June 9, 2017, not the day Gen Prayut took office as junta leader in 2014. That said, the former CDC chairman insisted the tenure should conclude in 2025.
The latest statement, however, contradicted what Mr Meechai was quoted as saying in the September 2018 minutes of 500th CDC meeting, which was previously leaked to the public. At the time, he reportedly suggested, by citing the will of the charter, the tenure count might begin before the current supreme law was promulgated. In short, the time when Gen Prayut ran the country as junta leader should be counted in the eight-year limit, and his tenure should have ended this Aug 23.
Mr Meechai, however, told the court his statement as quoted in the 500th meeting was just his personal view and was not officially endorsed. He insisted that without endorsement at the subsequent meeting, the minutes were not official and should not be used as a reference.
However, another set of documents were leaked, suggesting the CDC had indeed endorsed the minutes in question at that following meeting. In effect, this means the documents could be considered official, and Gen Prayut has already completed his tenure.
As speculation and rumours swirl, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam threw weight behind Mr Meechai's view that Gen Prayut may stay on in power until 2025. But he stressed that this was not a foregone conclusion as everything could change by March 23 next year.
With such an interpretation, it's clear Mr Wissanu believes the embattled premier could be sticking around until next year before he calls a new election.
If the ruling transpires that way, it would represent a compromise from the court and Gen Prayut could host the 2022 Apec summit as he hopes to.
But it has also been speculated that instead of dragging on till early next year, Gen Prayut may opt to dissolve the House and call for new election sooner. If so, that would have to take place within 45 days.
In that case, even if Gen Prayut wishes to make a comeback, the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) may see him as a weak link, considering his remaining time, which is less than three years.
In terms of politics, he is no longer an exciting product. The magic has gone after eight years. His popularity has been sliding and this is the nature of Thai voters, who often prefers new faces. In that case, Gen Prayut would not be a strong option for the next poll campaign.
Such a scenario coincides with what Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said previously about the deadline for his brother in arms being 2025, meaning he has around two more years to go.
However. such a scenario, if it materialises, would not be welcome news for Gen Prayut, who is known to aspire to complete another full term. Moreover, the PPRP would have to look for a new leader to help sell its poll campaign pledges. Without Gen Prayut, the military clique would be substantially weakened.
In short, the charter court verdict will be of no benefit to Gen Prayut in any way.
Some may argue that the old powers still have the support of the 250 votes from appointed senators to pick a premier after the next election, but if we look carefully we can see the situation has changed.
The Senate is aware of this as well. Even though the opposition's attempts to curb its power were ultimately a flop, a number of senators are well aware of the growing public intolerance of their power to co-select a prime minister. Their special power may actually backfire, and the country could plunge into crisis.
Gen Prawit, despite his attempts to impress the public that he is still fit and strong while performing as caretaker PM, has no hope of being successor, given his old age and frail state. The PPRP would definitely not nominate "big brother" for the role.
On the surface, the old military clique seems strong, but in reality its power is dwindling as the pro-democracy groups start to become more vocal, with a series of protests, and expand their list of demands covering the amendment of the lese majeste law, which is unprecedented.
They also call for fairer political rules, and an end to the old power tricks which saw Gen Prayut and his brothers in arms shamefully take advantage of their rivals.
As a number of crucial laws have now been enacted, the public is just waiting for the right time to boot the old powers out of the political area in a democratic way.