Thailand’s long and winding electoral process has effectively ended where it started: with coup-maker Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha installed as national leader of a still military-guided government.
But unlike Prayut’s previous coup-installed junta, which ruled over the kingdom in authoritarian fashion for five full years, his new elected coalition isn’t expected to last nearly as long, as competing parties jostle for power, resources and political advantage in an inherently unstable new democratic order.
A joint sitting of the elected lower and appointed upper houses today (June 5) voted Prayut to the premiership over an apparent ultra-slim majority coalition government led by his military-aligned Palang Pracharat party (PPRP), which placed second (116 seats) at the March 24 elections.
As of late Wednesday night, Prayut had won 500 out of 750 possible votes, putting him over the 375 threshold needed to become prime minister, according to local reports. That placed him well beyond rival anti-military candidate Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who had tallied 244 at the same time.
After weeks of horse-trading over ministerial portfolios, PPRP will lead a multi-party coalition in control of an estimated 254 seats of the 500-member lower house. The military-appointed Senate’s 250 members assured Prayut won the prime minister vote but will not factor in passing crucial legislation including the national budget in July.
The military-linked government coalesced only at the eleventh hour when the Democrat Party (53) voted overwhelmingly (61-16) on Tuesday to join a PPRP-led coalition, marking a reversal of since resigned party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva’s vow not to support Prayut’s return as an elected premier.
(Abhisit, a former prime minister, resigned today his MP status to protest his party’s position, a rare stand on principle in Thailand’s money-driven patronage politics.)
The Democrats, which joined forces with the Bhumjaithai party (51) to bolster their negotiating leverage vis-à-vis PPRP, reportedly secured key portfolios including agriculture it is expected to leverage with signature-marked policies to regain voter support it lost to PPRP before the next polls.
Bhumjaithai is expected to do the same via control of the public health portfolio in implementing its vote-winning medical marijuana legalization policy. Analysts already speculate that parties’ pursuit of their own vested interests will likely pull Prayut’s coalition in competing and potentially incoherent policy directions.
Peua Thai, the top seat-winning party (136) aligned with self-exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and the upstart millennial-led third-placing Future Forward (81) parties are poised to form an anti-military opposition with other like-minded smaller parties.
The self-proclaimed “Democratic Front” coalition put forward Future Forward leader Thanathorn, a billionaire auto parts tycoon and political novice already feared and loathed by military and royalist elites for his perceived radicalism, as its prime ministerial candidate in a largely symbolic gesture.
Thanathorn’s MP status was suspended by court order on May 23 on Election Commission endorsed accusations he illegally held shares in a media company upon registering as a parliamentary candidate, a charge that could ban him from politics and land him in prison. So, too, could a pending politicized sedition charge that will be heard in a military, not civilian, court.
In a Bloomberg interview, Thanathorn warned of possible renewed street protests of his supporters if the military and its political backers escalate pressure against the political opposition. It’s a threat analysts reckon he could mobilize with his strong electoral support in Bangkok, energized youthful followers and deep billionaire pockets.
“When all options are exhausted and when parliament can’t function, there could be street protests,” Thanathorn said, insinuating he would go to prison rather than flee any conviction. “There’s nothing wrong with protesting, and protesting isn’t the equivalent of chaos.”
Prayut staged his 2014 democracy-suspending coup and his aligned PPRP won the most national votes at the March 24 polls on a stability narrative, a message that resonates deeply among conservative Thais after nearly a decade of revolving anti-government street protests that often did descend into violent chaos.
Stability will also be determined by whether the ex-army commander known for his strongman persona can quickly grow into his new democratic role, one that will necessarily require compromise and acceptance of criticism, neither of which he demonstrated as a dictatorial junta leader.
Had Prayut given a vision speech before the June 5 parliamentary vote, which he defiantly opted against, he would have gotten a foretaste of that impending criticism in what’s expected to be a rambunctious parliament divided sharply on pro- and anti-military lines and with many coup-ousted politicians eager to exact political revenge.
Opposition leaders have already suggested in recent private meetings with diplomats that they aim to launch a no-confidence debate six to eight months into Prayut’s term with the aim of exposing corruption, knocking Prayut from power and bringing about new polls as early as 2020.
While commentators and observers almost universally predict a wobbly and short-lived government, it is still possible that Prayut and his military backers leverage the new diffusion of power to their political advantage.
New military-devised election laws and political rules aimed specifically to undercut Peua Thai’s past domination and place hard new checks on all elected politicians, pressure points that could be applied to win defections to PPRP’s side and stabilize its coalition through greater numbers.
One government insider with access to top junta officials told Asia Times PPRP expects to gain at least 270 seats through defections from Peua Thai, Future Forward and other small opposition parties by the time parliament is fully operational.
Thanathorn claimed in a speech to foreign reporters last month that unnamed PPRP representatives reached out to his mother to offer to drop pending charges against him in exchange for the defection of 20 of his party’s MPs, a claim the PPRP has denied and countered with defamation charges.
At the same time, Prayut will need to manage and close early three-way fissures inside his PPRP among a camp of ex-junta officials, another allied to Deputy Prime Minister and junta economic czar Somkid Jatrusripitak and a third linked with the sahm mit, or three friends, power-brokers credited with recruiting the party’s politicians and securing its surprisingly strong performance at the March 24 ballot box.
The three sides are already reportedly jostling for power, resources and supremacy inside the conservative-leaning party that won the overall national vote and is now clearly more than a mere transitional mechanism for the military to eventually fade from politics with its interests and leaders intact.
Already faced with pressure from within and without, Prayut will quickly find leading under a noisy and contested democracy an utterly different experience from commanding a largely unchallenged military regime with legally protected dictatorial powers.
And while the ex-soldier known for his tempestuous outbursts can be expected to fight fire with fire in parliament, it is notable and significant that many observers are predicting, perhaps hopefully, his coalition government’s collapse before it has even been seated.