Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha during the coronation procession of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok on May 5, 2019. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Five years after military coup-makers seized power, suspended democracy and imposed repressive junta rule, Thailand officially returned on Friday, May 24, to a form of circumscribed democracy with the first sitting of a newly elected parliament.

Whether the transition is viewed as credible at home and aboard, however, will depend on how political power is exercised and distributed in a new military-designed system that mixes ballot box-elected and junta-appointed legislators, and paves the way for coup-installed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to retain the premiership as a nominally elected leader.

But there are already signs that the kingdom’s new hybrid politics will frustrate certain popular hopes for a democratic order that checks and balances until now unchallenged military and other conservative interests through parliamentary process and scrutiny. Local frustration could also erode foreign confidence, namely in the EU and US, in a political transition that will largely define Prayut’s legacy.

Parliament was opened without a clear ruling coalition in place, though signs pointed towards Prayut’s military-aligned, second-placing Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) forming the core of a 20-plus party government that will have only a slim majority in the 500-seat lower house.

The Bhumjaithai and Democrat parties, 52 and 51 seats respectively, are still reportedly locked in talks with PPRP over ministerial allocations, with the two middling parties joining forces to enhance their negotiating leverage for lucrative and influential portfolios.

PPRP (115 seats) is reportedly driving a hard bargain and is expected to retain the most influential portfolios, including defense, finance and interior, among others. The junta-appointed 250-member Senate will vote with the lower house on the next prime minister, with Prayut a shoo-in to win. The vote is expected to be held next week.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha votes at a polling station in Bangkok, March 24, 2019. Photo: AFP/NurPhoto/Anusak Laowilas

That will put Peua Thai, the top seat-winning party (136) aligned with self-exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and the upstart millennial-led Future Forward (80) parties in the anti-military opposition with a smattering of like-minded smaller parties.

Peua Thai announced soon after the March 24 poll it had the numbers to form a ruling coalition, but the electoral math subsequently changed when the Election Commission controversially rejigged its formula for distributing 150 party list seats.

The recalculation, approved by the Constitutional Court a day before official election results were legally required to be announced on May 9, subtracted eight seats from Future Forward’s initial 88 tally and handed single seats to a dozen obscure small parties that have all willingly aligned with PPRP.

Peua Thai and Future Forward politicians have publicly railed that the election was rigged in favor of PPRP, though neither anti-junta party has opted to boycott or moved to mobilize mass protests of their supporters against the result, a potential potent threat considering Future Forward’s unexpectedly strong performance in the capital, Bangkok.

While the Election Commission’s competence in managing the poll has been widely panned, few, if any, diplomatic and other independent observers believe that the poll was systematically rigged on election day, lest Future Forward would not have been allowed to place third on an overtly anti-junta ticket.

Peua Thai party supporters during a campaign rally in Bangkok, Thailand, February 15, 2019. Photo: AFP/Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto

That means that PPRP likely actually won the overall national vote, albeit under election rules designed specifically to undercut Peua Thai’s past dominance. Prayut’s pro-stability message thus resonated well beyond protest-wracked Bangkok, including in the country’s rice-growing central plains swing region where it placed strongest and the comparatively rich south.

He may also have won conservative-leaning votes for his strongman role in steering the kingdom’s delicate royal succession from deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej to new King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who this month was formally coronated as Rama X in the centuries-old Chakri dynasty. Many analysts believe Prayut staged his 2014 coup largely to ensure stability during the transition.

But that stability could soon be tested if perceptions gather that the military and its aligned conservative interests are seen as unjustly manipulating politics. Some believe that is already the case with the legal pressure mounting on Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit, a billionaire ex-businessman whose family made its fortune in the auto parts industry.

Thanathorn’s MP status was suspended by the Constitutional Court on May 23 over accusations he illegally held shares in a media company after registering as a parliamentary candidate.

The 40-year-old novice politician has vehemently denied the charge, which he and his supporters, including many in the Bangkok diplomatic community, believe are politically motivated. Both the Election Commission and Constitutional Court, however, have deemed the charges have enough merit to be weighed.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit at a ceremony for the commencement of parliament, May 24, 2019. Photo: AFP/Panumas Sanguanwong

If the media-holding accusation is eventually dropped, a pending sedition charge for allegedly supporting anti-junta, pro-democracy protestors could likewise be his undoing. The charge, a reputed violation of the previous military regime’s strict ban on political association, will significantly be tried in a military rather than civilian court.

Thanathorn’s at least initial absence from parliament will no doubt come as a relief to PPRP. Thanathorn and his party ran on a stark anti-junta ticket, promising if elected to sharply slash bulging military budgets, end military conscription and review recent big-ticket military procurements, none of which were scrutinized beyond cursory media coverage under junta rule.

That would potentially put the junta’s outgoing Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, a close Prayut ally harking to their days at the same elite military unit and his junta’s top powerbroker, under parliamentary fire for hardware deals he brokered, including an opaque US$1 billion submarine deal with China in which it’s not crystal clear how many vessels are actually on order.

PPRP’s likely coalition partners, sensing early vulnerability on opposition corruption allegations against the outgoing junta, have openly called on Prayut to exclude Prawit from the next government’s Cabinet. Prayut, however, has already said he would welcome Prawit’s participation in his government if his faltering health permits.

Ex-police chief Seripisut Temiyavet, head of the vocally anti-junta Thai Liberal Party (10), has already said he would call from his seat in parliament on the Anti-Corruption Commission, an independent agency, to identify and examine bank accounts Prawit allegedly holds off-shore.

When questioned by a Bangkok Post reporter about Seripisut’s claim at an April 25 media scrum, Prawit became visibly angry and slapped the journalist before walking away, a physical assault captured in a short Thai language video posted online by local Workpoint News.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (R) and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan before a Cabinet meeting at Government House, Bangkok, January 4, 2017. Photo: Twitter

That anticipated type of tough questioning likely explains why military-aligned elements have moved so quickly against Thanathorn and his party’s top members.

PPRP supporters say the party already considers Future Forward a more potent threat to its interests than the Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai, which despite winning the most parliamentary seats appears a shell of its former juggernaut self due to weak and tired leadership.

The opposition coalition has already suggested in diplomatic meetings it will launch a no-confidence debate six to eight months into the new government’s term that will aim to expose corruption, knock Prayut from power and bring about new polls as early as 2020 that some analysts already speculate Future Forward could win.

That all depends, of course, on Thanathorn’s and his party’s survival. Quietly, Thanathorn’s conservative critics are raising doubts about the ex-student activist’s loyalty to the crown, an incendiary accusation under local lese majeste laws that strongly shield the king, queen, regent and heir from any slight or criticism.

One government official who requested anonymity noted that Thanathorn and his top party executives failed to wear the royal color yellow during and commemorative royal pins after Vajiralongkorn’s May 4-6 coronation ceremonies. The official also claims the party does not maintain a royal shrine at its Bangkok headquarters, as is standard at other parties’ hubs.

A woman holds up a portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn ahead of his coronation in Bangkok on May 4, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Manan Vatsyayana

A PPRP senior advisor suggested the timing of Thanathorn’s suspension was no accident, symbolically announced the day before Vajiralongkorn and new Queen Suthida ceremonially opened parliament.  Thanathorn defiantly attended today’s opening event, held at the Foreign Ministry while a new parliament building is still under construction, on the grounds it was not a proper working session.

Whether PPRP supporters and royalist conservatives believe the anti-royal allegations, or are conveniently advancing them to eliminate a potentially powerful critic before he gains a voice in parliament, is unclear.

But if Thanathorn is banned or even jailed on what appear to be politically motivated charges, Thailand’s transition back to democracy will come under rapid fire domestically and internationally for lacking credibility and potentially provide ammunition for a new generation of destabilizing street protests.

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