Abhisit OK working with military
Prayut a no for PM, but a coalition's still a goer
Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva says he wants "a mandate from the ballot box straight away" to become Thailand's next prime minister, that he would join a no-confidence motion against a future Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha if there were "good reasons" and categorically rules out supporting any future coups -- although he's open to working with pro-military Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) "if the government is not corrupt and will not carry on with non-democratic processes".
In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Mr Abhisit also said the Democrat Party had a comprehensive plan to reduce Thailand's inequality, now rated by Credit Suisse as the highest in the world. He said he would like to work towards amending the constitution, limiting the power of the appointed Senate and ending military conscription.
Looking relaxed in an open-necked pale blue shirt and black suit jacket, the Democrat leader criticised the Pheu Thai and the military government, but largely ignored Future Forward, a party facing possible dissolution after the election. Mr Abhisit said his party had a 7-point plan to reduce the gap between rich and poor, including extending access to health and education services, "gradually" improving welfare benefits for the poor, children and the elderly, and reducing taxes for low- and middle-income citizens and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) -- a contrast, he said, with Pheu Thai's policy to reduce taxes across the board, including for the rich and large corporations.
"Pheu Thai is proposing to reduce corporate income tax. We say corporate income tax should be reduced only for SMEs…we say personal income tax should be reduced only for the lower brackets, and people who can afford to pay more should pay more."
Mr Abhisit said he supported a "gradual" move to an all-volunteer military and supported reducing the military budget, but took the opportunity to take another swipe at his most formidable rival. "Pheu Thai is all talk. If you look at the past couple of decades, only Democrat governments have actually cut military budgets. You have to ask Pheu Thai why when they were in power, they've never done this."
Shortly before the 2014 coup, Mr Abhisit told the BBC that people wanted elections, but reforms were necessary. "Have any of the reforms been achieved? The answer is 'No'. We see no real progress on political reform, police reform, media reform, economic reforms. That's the assessment that Thai people have on the last five years."
Questions have long swirled about the Democrat Party's relationship with the military. Mr Abhisit's former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban quit the party to lead the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the "yellow shirt" group whose protests paved the way for the 2014 coup.
Late last year, Mr Abhisit won the Democrat Party's first open leadership election, but only narrowly beat former PDRC member Warong Dechgitvigrom. Asked whether the Democrat Party was united, Mr Abhisit said "We have all been campaigning together… Even after the announcement about me…not supporting Prayut, everyone in the party understands that, because it reflects the party's ideology, and we need to be fair to voters."
Mr Abhisit did say, however, that a coalition with PPRP was on the table. "My objective is to form a government that is not corrupt and will not carry on with non-democratic practices. If Palang Pracharat can conform to that, we're open to talks with them."
Asked whether he would categorically rule out supporting another coup, Mr Abhisit replied "Absolutely, yes. I have never supported any coups." He said that in the event Gen Prayut became prime minister -- something that could happen if his supporters win as few as 25% of House seats, if the Senate voted as a bloc to elect the NCPO leader -- he would consider joining no-confidence motions "if there are reasons to do so."
He added that the Senate had too much power, and he would like to amend the constitution to reduce it. "You either have a senate that is directly elected by the people, or you have a non-elected senate, which some democratic countries do have, but with limited power. "We'd like to amend the constitution, but … even if all 500 MPs agree, it still cannot be done unless you get the support from the Senate. So our plan is to build a consensus among the people that the constitution needs to be amended on various issues."
As for his personal ambitions, Mr Abhisit bristled at the suggestion that his rise to PM in 2008 did not reflect the popular will, insisting his election in the House followed parliamentary norms in other countries. When the question was rephrased to ask how much better he would feel if he became a popularly-elected PM, he smiled. "A lot! There's no question about that. I'd love to have a mandate from the ballot box straight away."