Pongthep Thepkanchana believes time is ticking down on Thailand’s military government. More than most coup-ousted Peua Thai party politicians, the former deputy premier and US-trained lawyer has remained publicly critical of the military’s 2014 suspension of democracy and subsequent repressive rule.
Banned from politics for five years by a previous coup government in 2007, the seasoned politician has held top ministerial positions under both ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his coup-ousted sister Yingluck Shinawatra, and is widely seen as a loyal confidante to both self-exiled and criminally convicted former leaders.
As Thailand moves tentatively towards elections and a return to democratic politics, some analysts see Pongthep as a potential prime ministerial candidate, though he denies that he is in the running amid reports of a leadership struggle inside the leading party.
In an interview with Asia Times, Pongthep weighs election prospects and envisions what a post-junta democratic future would look like.
Asia Times: Is Thailand finally headed towards new polls in May 2019 or do you expect further delays?
Pongthep: Of course, they may like to delay the election as long as possible. But I don’t think they have any power to do that. At the same time, they are trying to win the votes, by introducing some programs, which are copies of our programs.
Even if they want to delay the election, they are preparing for the election as well. It is very obvious that [Prime Minister] General Prayut [Chan-ocha] is looking for a return. [But] because he is looking for a return, he has to try to gain support from politicians.
Asia Times: Why do you think Prayut may still want to delay the polls?
Pongthep: First, he is uncertain if he will come back after the next election. Secondly, even if he has a chance to come back he won’t have full power as he does now. He won’t have full power under Article 44, he won’t have the National Assembly that always obeys him.
If Prayut is not the head of the [junta] and not the prime minister, he has no foundation, he’s just nothing, normal people, retired general. Of course he will lose power, and fast.
Asia Times: Local media have been awash with reports that the junta’s proxy party is poaching your Peua Thai party members. How many MPs have you actually lost to defections?
Pongthep: There are some defections, of course, from our party. Because this government and their supporters try to approach some of our former MPs and use various tactics to try to induce them to join their new party.
For example, they were threatened with some [legal] cases, they were offered money. And they were threatened they will have difficulty in the next election if they do not join. But very few of them left our party to join the new party.
Asia Times: So how many have you actually lost?
Pongthep: We lost two or three in Loei province. And there are some MPs that because the number of constituencies [from 400 to 350 seats] has been reduced we did not have space for them to run. Even if they wanted to run under our banner, we did not have a place for them.
But it’s not many…We have confirmed three. In other provinces, just some rumors, no actual defections yet. They have been approached, but very few have declared they will leave.
Asia Times: What are your internal polls saying? Has Peua Thai become more or less popular since the coup?
Pongthep: We have not conducted a survey for quite some time. But when we go out to meet people, we know, they support us. Even for those who did not support us in the past, now they turn to support us because of what the government is doing.
Asia Times: So you think your party has grown in popularity because of the military government’s repression and other policies?
Pongthep: Yes, yes. Compared with the time of the coup until right now, I think we have gained more popularity.
Asia Times: Do you have a prediction of how many seats Peua Thai will win?
Pongthep: Our goal is to pass the 50% mark, we need to reach 251 seats or over. If we can reach 251 seats or more, it is very, very difficult for anybody else to form a government without our participation.
Asia Times: Do you think you can hit that mark with your said rise in popularity?
Pongthep: It’s reachable, it’s reachable.
Asia Times: What is your sense of the new military-aligned Palang Pracharat Party? Could they pull an electoral surprise?
Pongthep: A surprise? For the newly formed party, if they do not upgrade some existing political party, I don’t think there will be a surprise. They cannot expect to get 70 seats, no, I don’t think so.
Asia Times: Because they don’t have an established grass roots network or why?
Pongthep: First, do you think that the military is popular? If you think that the military is popular, then you might believe the new party Palang Pracharat can gain many seats. But the question is: is the military government popular?
Secondly, if the new party has to compete with the existing parties – the two main parties Peua Thai and Democrats – they can hardly take many seats from these parties. So I don’t expect a surprise from that new party.
Asia Times: Do you think Prayut is popular? He has recently tried to show a more human touch by traveling upcountry and meeting with voters.
Pongthep: You can see at the election if he is popular or not. At the time of the election, General Prayut will know if he is popular or not.
Asia Times: How concerned are you that the junta might dissolve your party before the election? There have been threats over exiled ex-premier’s Thaksin’s alleged influence over the party.
Pongthep: We have an experience of being dissolved twice. We are prepared for the worst. So no problem if they dissolve our party. I don’t see any ground for dissolving our party.
Asia Times: Are you concerned about the rules the junta may try to put in place for the election, including possible bans on campaigning against the military and its government?
Pongthep: They may want to try to lay down some rules, some regulations that are unreasonable. But under the constitution and organic laws, they cannot just do anything they like.
It is quite obvious that the next election will be about the clash of two concepts: pro-military and pro-democracy. If you want Prayut to continue, vote for them; if you want elected government, you vote for us. If you like the way Prayut governs, vote for them; if you don’t, vote for us.
If General Prayut is not involved in the next general election, no one will waste their time talking about or criticizing him. But if he is on the list of any party as a premier candidate, then this issue must be discussed widely.
Asia Times: The junta has recently ramped up legal pressure on the Shinawatra family? Why now if we’re headed back to a democracy and reconciliation?
Pongthep: First, they changed the law so that they can try to get the pending cases against Dr. Thaksin to be continued. It’s just for him, the amendment of the law, just to try to get him…We have a statute of limitations but they now say that these type of cases there should be no statute of limitations in order to prevent him from coming back.
Because the pending cases against him could not continue under the previous law, so they amended the law so that he can be tried in absentia, all the cases…Because normally you can try the case only with the presence of the defendant. So now they say they can try the case even when the defendant is absent.
But they know they cannot get him anyway. Because he has never been extradited. I think the foreign governments understand so well they are political cases.
Asia Times: Do you see this as a negotiation tactic where the junta ramps up legal pressure against Thaksin and his family in exchange for him signing off on an electoral scenario where Prayut continues as prime minister?
Pongthep: I cannot read their minds. You can analyze it yourself.
Asia Times: You are known to be close to the Shinawatra family. What has been their response to the ramped up legal pressure?
Pongthep: I am not close to the family…I was Yingluck’s deputy, but I have not seen her since she left the country. So I have no idea.
Asia Times: So is there any chance of Peua Thai joining a national unity government that includes Prayut’s or the junta’s backed party?
Pongthep: It is very, very, very unlikely that Peua Thai will join a coalition government which includes Prayut. Very, very unlikely…I think we will have enough votes without [needing] the military-supported party. I think we will be able to form a coalition [without them].
Asia Times: Then would you join your arch rival Democrats to prevent the military from maintaining power?
Pongthep: It’s a numbers game. After the election, we will know if we form a government how many we will invite in a coalition government. Right now we can not foresee.
Asia Times: But my question is more philosophical – are the past political wounds still too deep to join forces with the Democrats?
Pongthep: It’s a numbers game. We will not discuss until the results are announced.
Asia Times: I know that certain foreign interlocutors have brought your opposed party members together to discuss and weigh the importance of democracy first. Have these meetings made progress?
Pongthep: Right now the Democrats and Peua Thai parties, I think both parties have learned their lessons. I think we have learned from the coup and after the coup. So we learned our lessons. And I’m pretty sure that both will in the future use what we learned to make some changes in what we have done.
Asia Times: So what are the lessons Peua Thai has learned?
Pongthep: I think from Peua Thai we have learned that even if we are the majority in the House [of Representatives], it doesn’t mean that we can do anything and everything. We have to listen to the other side, we have to work with the other side, we have to listen to the people.
Asia Times: What do you think the Democrats have learned?
Pongthep: I think they have learned that the coup and military government is not good for the country and is not good for political parties, all political parties, including them.
Asia Times: Prayut recently said that elections should not be held until the royal coronation. Could this be a complicating factor on when elections are held?
Pongthep: What Prayut said is not a condition in the constitution or any law, so I didn’t give any weight to what he spoke.
Asia Times: What about the idea the junta may be reluctant to open the country’s politics again while Thailand is chairman of Asean in 2019, that it doesn’t want to risk instability while the world is watching Thailand?
Pongthep: I don’t know about that, but as far as what I read in the news, there is opposition abroad to Prayut being the head of Asean. So I think he should leave sooner than the time we become the chair of Asean. I am 100% certain that there will not be any protests that will obstruct an Asean meeting.
If all state mechanisms enforce the law equally, then there should not be any problem. As I said earlier, political parties have learned their lessons, but social movements have learned their lessons as well.
Asia Times: What lessons do you think the junta has taken from the recent election in Malaysia, where ousted prime minister Najib Razak is now under scrutiny for corruption?
Pongthep: They [the junta] might think that even if they don’t come back that the people whom they trust in the independent organizations will prevent the Malaysian scenario from happening in Thailand.
Because they tried to create a system to protect themselves from the constitution. The last section or almost last section stipulates that whatever they do is constitutional and legal.
Asia Times: But some of your allied politicians have said the first thing they would do once in power is amend the military’s constitution?
Pongthep: They created a system that even if you control all seats in the House you cannot amend the constitution, you need support of one-third of the appointed Senate, and in some situations to pass the Constitutional Court, or a referendum, so it’s nearly impossible to amend the constitution.
Asia Times: So you’re saying that even in a landslide Peua Thai win scenario, they’re safe from you scrutinizing their record while in office?
Pongthep: I’m saying that’s their perception. So let them perceive that way. I am a lawyer myself, I know how to play with the law as well. Let them perceive that way.
Asia Times: Is there a risk that as the junta comes to sense that the international pressure that was there previously from the US and EU to restore democracy has eased and that without that same level of pressure the regime will backtrack on holding polls?
Pongthep: First, besides pressure from abroad there is pressure from inside. The Thai people have been waiting for so long to hold elections.
And even though Prayut may be welcomed by the US and some countries in Europe, because he has announced the elections will come soon, if he delays again he won’t have any credibility.
In fact he doesn’t have much now after telling a lie for three times. Of course, he wants to delay the elections as long as possible. [But] he has no more tricks to play.