Prayut faces year of challenges
PM needs to stand by his poll date promise and ease public fears that the military regime hopes to preserve its iron grip on power
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will inevitably face more political challenges this year as he will have to stand by his election pledge to win the trust of the public and the international community and dispel concerns the regime intends to retain its grip on power, observers say.
Concerns were raised after Gen Prayut, as head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), issued the Section 44 order to address parties' immediate concerns they could not meet Friday's deadline under the new organic law that requires parties to update their memberships and registrations.
However, parties suspect the regime is paving the way for a military-backed political party which will draw members of existing parties to back it and support Gen Prayut and the regime to stay in power after an election expected in late 2018.
The order gives new parties a one-month head start over existing ones. Existing parties will not be able to begin the registration process until April 1, while new parties can start forming on March 1.
Existing parties also say that requiring all party members to register again amounts to a "reset" that would open the door for some to defect to new groups.
However, the NCPO has insisted the ban on political activities will remain in place due to security concerns despite allowing some extra time for political parties to perform necessary preparations.
Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told the Bangkok Post that the NCPO order has raised uncertainty over the election roadmap.
Mr Abhisit questioned how the election can be held in time late this year given the different time frames given to existing parties and new ones. The Democrat Party has a membership of up to 3 million and it will be difficult for all to confirm their memberships within a 30-day time frame, he complained.
Mr Abhisit said the organic laws on the Election Commission and political parties have now come into effect while the organic bills on the election of MPs and the Senate should be passed by the National Legislative Assembly by June at the latest, after which point an election must be held in 150 days or in November.
If the two bills are enacted sooner, the poll schedule will be brought forward, he said.
"But now it is unclear when the ban on political activities will be lifted. Time will also be needed to hold primary voting procedures [in which party members will select potential candidates to contest elections]. But if political parties hold primaries in advance, they will violate the ban," Mr Abhisit said.
"The NCPO chief should be brave enough. If he wants to delay the election, he should announce it clearly rather than resort to legalities by issuing a new order to amend the law passed by the five rivers [of power]. No sooner is the law enacted than you amend it," Mr Abhisit said.
He said the Section 44 order showed the NCPO had chosen to use absolute power which will risk sparking fresh conflict in the country.
"Don't ever think that the arbitrary use of absolute power will not meet opposition from people who overthrew those who used elections as a tool to serve dictators," Mr Abhisit said.
Pheu Thai Party heavyweight Chaturon Chaisang told the Bangkok Post the political landscape this year will be dominated by efforts to prepare for the NCPO to return to power after the poll.
Mr Chaturon believes the poll is unlikely to take place by the November schedule as promised by Gen Prayut.
Mr Chaturon noted that the Section 44 order is designed to benefit an emerging political party which will be formed as a "nominee" of the NCPO.
The order is intended to destroy existing parties and bring everything back to square one with a reset of political parties' membership, he said.
Mr Chaturon said the NCPO will step up efforts to weaken existing parties and open the door for new parties to back Gen Prayut to return as prime minister after the election.
He also referred to Gen Prayut's recent meeting with politicians from the Sasomsap family who wield political influence in Nakhon Pathom province, which sparked rumours the military regime might have already secured a political deal with politicians. Gen Prayut later strongly denied this.
Mr Chaturon said the Gen Prayut's popularity is waning following suspicions about corruption involving some key ministers, and the use of power to amend legislation -- which goes against the constitution.
Suriyasai Katasila, deputy dean of Rangsit University's Social Innovation College and former coordinator for the People's Alliance for Democracy, said Thai politics will reach a major turning point where political polarisation will worsen in the first quarter of this year.
Political war drums will be sounded amid uncertainty surrounding the election roadmap that may be extended to 2019, he said. Mr Suriyasai also said if the NCPO wants to stay on in power without resistance, its economic team must succeed in tackling bread-and-butter issues to win back the sympathy of the people. "If the NCPO is to stay on in power, it must restore public confidence rather than trying to keep delaying the election," Mr Suriyasai said.
- Exclusive interviews: Abhisit, Chaturon explain the situation