Senators send the 'old man' a warning
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Senators send the 'old man' a warning

Incumbent PM Srettha Thavisin, right, pays respect to former PM Thaksin Shinawatra at his home in Bangkok during the Songkran festival. Srettha Thavisin X Account
Incumbent PM Srettha Thavisin, right, pays respect to former PM Thaksin Shinawatra at his home in Bangkok during the Songkran festival. Srettha Thavisin X Account

It was a close call. Five against four was the vote by the nine Constitutional Court judges when they decided not to suspend Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin from performing his duties after they voted 6:3 to accept for consideration the petition of 40 senators demanding the removal of the prime minister for allegedly violating ethical standards in appointing Phichit Chuenban as PM's Office Minister.

The prime minister was in Tokyo attending the Nikkei Forum together other leaders when the court made its ruling. Had the court decided to suspend him, it might have caused him big embarrassment. He could have been forced to leave the forum and quickly fly home.

It is not known whether the five court judges who voted in favour of allowing Mr Srettha to continue performing his duties took this issue into consideration. But what they have done is saved the prime minister's face.

Mr Srettha has 15 days from the court's ruling to submit a rebuttal after which the court will take some time to deliberate.

It may take several weeks before Judgement Day. For the time being, he is expected to do his "salesman's" job as usual, making overseas tours and domestic inspection trips. But his fate now rests in the hands of the judges.

In the worst case scenario, that is if the court finds him guilty, not only that he will lose his premiership, but his entire cabinet will collapse. The whole process of government formation and selection of the prime minister will start all over again.

If the coalition parties still stick together, there will be three candidates for the premiership post: Paetongtarn Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party, Anutin Charnvirakul of Bhumjaithai and Pirapan Salirathavibhaga.

But if the coalition parties break up, it will be fun just watching the intense race to form an alliance that controls a majority in the House to get the ticket to Government House.

The Move Forward Party, which controls the largest number of votes in the House at 150, may not be a key player this time as its fate still hangs in the balance. The party is due to submit its rebuttal against the Election Commission's demand that the party should be dissolved and its executive committee banished from politics for its alleged attempt to overthrow the monarchy to the court on June 2. The court is yet to set a date for its decision.

It is an open secret that Mr Srettha is just a figurehead, with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra pulling the strings.

The appointment of Phichit, a long-time lawyer of the Shinawatra family, as the PM's Office minister is a glaring example of Thaksin's clout. Another example was the rejigging of responsibilities at the Finance Ministry in late April which saw the duties of then Deputy Finance Minister Kritsada Jinavijarana substantially trimmed, and those of Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha Nukara who had his deputy prime ministership taken away. Both men resigned.

Then, there was the prime minister's abrupt U-turn on decriminalisation of cannabis, a flagship policy of the Bhumjaithai Party, by reclassifying weed as a Category 5 narcotic drug.

This sudden move was seen as a slap in the face of Bhumjaithai, the government's second coalition partner. It was also seen by some pundits as Thaksin seeking vengeance against the de facto leader of Bhumjaithai, whom he regards as a political traitor.

Viewed in this context, the move by 40 senators against Mr Srettha was seen as a warning sign to the Pheu Thai de facto leader not to overstep the line of what was rumoured to be a deal between him and conservative elites, which paved the way for his return home after more than 15 years of living in exile.

Dubbed the "deal made in hell", former prime minister Thaksin was granted unprecedented special privileges which include a reduction of his 8-year prison term to just one year by royal pardon; and his admission into Police General Hospital for 150 days without spending a day behind bars for his supposed serious illnesses.

Thaksin, however, denied the appointment of Phichit was a setup to undermine Mr Srettha. He claims he is just a "harmless old man" with no power whatsoever. But wise men say a politician is judged by his deeds, not by his words.

On the surface of it, the Thai political situation appears stable and calm. But beneath the calm, political uncertainties are lurking and waiting for their time to explode, sooner rather than later.

The dissolution of the Move Forward Party and the removal of Mr Srettha from the premiership by the court are two possible scenarios which will have immediate impacts on the political landscape.

Meanwhile, even if Thaksin is indicted by public prosecutors this Wednesday for lese majeste, he may not be beaten yet.

The prospect that he may be locked up in jail like the many other lese majeste suspects as predicted by some pundits may be wishful thinking.

The legal system is infamous for being flexible. The case could drag on for years during which Thaksin could manoeuvre in his pursuit of a triumphant comeback.

Thaksin is definitely not an ordinary old man, like many of his peers, but a man with teeth.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

Veera Prateepchaikul

Former Editor

Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.

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