BANGKOK — Politics has returned to Thailand.
Nearly a decade after he led a military takeover of the government, authoritarian Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is hoping his double-edged new promise to voters — “No coup again” — will win him another term in office in this longtime U.S. ally in Southeast Asia.
Despite Mr. Prayuth’s long tenure in office and a revamped constitutional system that was supposed to preserve his power, he may find himself packing on May 14, the date the country’s election regulator has set this week for a national vote.
Mr. Prayuth dissolved parliament’s elected lower chamber, the 500-seat House of Representatives, on Monday, three days before its four-year tenure expired. The 250 senators appointed by the government — one key constitutional change meant to protect the junta’s power — remain in place.
The prime minister is selected by a vote in a combined session of the two chambers and needs at least 376 votes to win. Mr. Prayuth will stay on in a caretaker role if no candidate or party can muster that majority.
Mr. Prayuth, a former army chief, has dominated the political scene since a military junta he led ousted the elected civilian government in 2014. Polls show the opposition Pheu Thai Party, backed by billionaire populist Thaksin Shinawatra, has opened a big lead over conservative and military-backed parties. The leading Pheu Thai candidate is Mr. Thaksin’s daughter, 36-year-old Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
Amid concerns over how the military would react to a repudiation at the polls, Mr. Prayuth is taking an unusual tack.
“There should be no coup again,” the lame-duck prime minister recently told reporters. “If any serious conflict occurs again [after the election], I don’t know how to solve it because I have nothing to do with it now.”
Cannabis and corruption rank among the biggest issues facing candidates for prime minister and the National Assembly, but some analysts say a potential military coup looms over the vote. The question is whether the next government satisfies the military and its allies among the elite’s conservatives and old-money establishment.
Military putsches have ousted more than a dozen Thai governments since World War II.
Many predict that Mr. Prayuth and his newly created United Thai Nation Party will fall short in May. Under the new constitution he muscled through, he can legally remain prime minister for only two more years — until 2025 — when the eight-year term limit kicks in. All of his rivals are competing for full four-year terms with the possibility of reelection.
Mr. Thaksin, living in exile in Dubai after fleeing a corruption prosecution while prime minister in 2006, nevertheless is riding a big lead in opinion polls. That sets up the possibility of a Pheu Thai-led coalition government that would grant him immunity from his legal woes and allow him to return home.
Mr. Prayuth participated in the 2006 coup that toppled Mr. Thaksin’s elected government and in the 2014 putsch that ousted Mr. Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected prime minister in 2011. Ms. Yingluck is also a fugitive living abroad, including in England, dodging her own corruption conviction that supporters say was political persecution.
The vote in May will also be the first test of the political environment in the wake of youth-led mass protests in 2020 that rocked the country and even called into question the powers of the country’s once-untouchable monarchy. Nearly 2,000 people faced legal charges as a result of the demonstrations.
The opposition is making no secret of its plans to restore clear civilian rule. The Shinawatra family’s political vehicle is expected to secure the biggest chunk of seats in parliament. Pheu Thai is seeking a popular mandate “to get rid of the Prayuth regime and form a Pheu Thai government,” party leader Cholnan Srikaew said on March 9.
Analysts say the upstart party’s goal is within reach.
“The Pheu Thai Party will certainly gain the most seats in the upcoming election,” said Phongthep Thepkanjana, who served in several minister-level posts in Ms. Yingluck’s government before it was ousted in the 2014 coup.
Mr. Thaksin’s youngest child, Paetongtarn, 36, is helping lead Pheu Thai. If Ms. Paetongtarn becomes prime minister, she is expected to grant her father and aunt amnesty and bring them home without imprisonment.
The military nervously views Mr. Thaksin and other anti-coup candidates as threats — especially to its advantageous power to promote its officers without civilian oversight. Army Chief Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewtae retires at the end of September, and his successor is said to be lined up.
Mr. Prayuth is facing a challenge on another front in the campaign from a longtime ally, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. Mr. Prawit, 77, a retired army general, describes himself as a breakaway candidate who experienced an anti-coup revelation on March 8 — nine years after backing the 2014 junta he would later join.
“I’m beginning to grasp that it was wrong to think that people are unable to elect good and capable representatives to office,” Mr. Prawit said on Facebook. “The politicians, whom the elite look down on, actually understand the problems. These politicians are more reliable when people call for their help than other groups in the power structure. Please believe in me for once.”
The scrambled field is creating a rare period of uncertainty in Thai politics.
If Mr. Thaksin’s family party cannot command a coalition, Pheu Thai and its allies “may have to decide whether to allow Prayuth to continue being the caretaker government or form a new government with Prawit,” Mr. Phongthep said in an interview.
“Prawit’s strongest points are his wide connections, support from some members of parliament and some senators, and his being more friendly and easygoing than Prayuth,” Mr. Phongthep said.
Wanwichit Boonprong, a Rangsit University political science lecturer and news commentator, said that “many senators secretly support [Prawit] — if his party has the chance to form a government.”
Other contenders are the youth-focused, anti-coup Move Forward Party and a mix of smaller pro- and anti-junta parties.
If the opposition fragments, the bloc of pro-government lawmakers in the Senate may be enough to allow the military to retain its dominance of the country’s political system.
Clashing on pot
Inspired by her authoritarian father, Ms. Paetongtarn vows to unleash a fresh war on drugs, railing against government moves that have legalized cannabis and illicit recreational substances.
“Narcotics run rampant, and cannabis is easily available,” she said while campaigning.
There is some history here. Mr. Thaksin’s bloody “nationwide anti-drug operations” in 2003 left more than 2,500 people shot dead in mysterious circumstances never investigated, according to Thai and international human rights groups. Police and officials at the time blamed nearly all deaths on shootouts among criminals.
Ms. Paetongtarn’s anti-cannabis crusade sets up a stark contrast with one of her closest rivals, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who enthusiastically backed marijuana legalization efforts last year. Mr. Anutin, a wealthy industrialist and politician, heads Bhum Jai Thai (“Proud To Be Thai”), the coalition’s second-biggest party.
The BJT is riding high in this mostly agricultural society, thanks to many who believe Mr. Anutin’s predictions that they can profit more from the weed industry than rice production.
Mr. Prayuth’s government primly pushes cannabis only for medical purposes, but plenty of recreational marijuana smoke billows among Thais and foreigners. Thousands of venues in Bangkok and across Thailand include hip niche, mom-and-pop and slick multistory shops financed by Thai and foreign “green rush” investors.
“It is expected that in the next election, the Bhum Jai Thai party will have the highest seat [total] among the conservative political parties and will be second only to the Pheu Thai Party,” Mr. Wanwichit said.
Mr. Anutin indicated that if he is not elected prime minister, he will join any coalition that ensures marijuana remains relatively unrestricted for adult users.
Mr. Prawit’s “close acquaintance” with Mr. Thaksin and his “deep close relationship” with Mr. Anutin could enable Mr. Prawit to become prime minister if they unite, Mr. Wanwichit said.
Whoever wins, Bangkok’s sometimes seesaw relations with Washington and Beijing could achieve a calmer balance. The major candidates say they favor expanding the balancing act between China and the U.S. as the two superpowers seek friends and influence in the region.
“I think the United States should be satisfied with Prayuth, Prawit, Anutin and Paetongtarn because the leaders of these four political parties have the idea of maintaining good relations with the United States as well as policy relations with China,” Mr. Wanwichit said.
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