11 July 2024

The new laws on elections and structures of the House of Representatives and the Senate have set the ball rolling for Thailand’s first democratic exercise at ballot boxes since the coup in 2014. The most anticipated part, however, is yet to come.

Military-backed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, leader of the 2014 coup, has yet to make known his political plans regarding the elections. According to previous reports and his own suggestions, Prayut had been tentatively scheduled to clear the air this month on whether or not he will align himself with a particular political party so that he will be its candidate for the premiership.

But people who have been waiting expectantly were disappointed last week, when Prayut shrugged off growing curiosity, saying his future plans were his business.

Now, the “big announcement” is likely to be made in December or early January, and not necessarily by Prayut himself. If he is to become prime minister through pre-election nomination, a political party needs to put him in its list of prime ministerial candidate(s) after the election decree is issued, which should happen late this year.

Political parties entering the race are given an option to tell the public their candidates for the prime minister post.  A party can nominate up to three candidates.

Prayut, however, can choose to do nothing and wait for an “invitation card.” The Constitution that was promulgated after the coup leaves the door open for an “outsider” to lead the post-election government. This scenario means he needs a lot of support of mainstream political parties if they fail to agree on who should lead the country and end up in a deadlock, as well as substantial backing from senators.

This scenario of Prayut sitting on the fence waiting for invitation is unlikely in the eyes of political analysts, as at least 500 MPs and senators out of a combined 750 members of both Houses must agree that they are facing a deadlock and need an “outsider” to lead the nation. The required number is huge.

Prayut’s third option is to invoke coup-related powers known as “Article 44” to tighten his political grips before or after election, regardless of election results and mainstream maneuvering after the poll. Most analysts believe this scenario is too harsh and will make him extremely unpopular. Moreover, if peace precedes the poll and continues afterwards, there will virtually be no pretext to exercise such powers.

That this scenario looks the most unlikely does not mean there are no grounds for Prayut to, say, initiate party dissolution. Pheu Thai’s politicians’ frequent contacts with Thaksin Shinawatra have been well-documented, making the party risk violating prohibitions on being influenced by people from outside its walls.

Less crucial, perhaps, are the leadership questions clouding the two main parties. It is certain that whoever lead the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties, the two camps will remain the biggest rivals going into the election, which is expected to take place next year between late February and early May.

It is very likely that Abhisit Vejjajiva, despite facing a few challengers for his party’s top post, will continue to lead the Democrat Party and be named its prime ministerial candidate. Pheu Thai’s situation is different, and its party leader and prime ministerial nominee can be different persons. This means that while the Democrat Party’s leadership selection process will be closely watched, it will be less so when Pheu Thai is concerned. What’s more important for the latter is the question of who will be its candidate for the top government post.

A royal decree on the election date is expected to be issued in December or early January. Although a very lengthy timeframe of 150 days is constitutionally allowed between the day of the royal decree announcement and the election day, a lot of analysts believe that the election can take place within 70 days or so of the royal decree announcement.

Assuming Abhisit remains the Democrat leader, he will absolutely be the party’s candidate for the prime minister post. If he is the only nominee, things will be less exciting than if former prime minister Chuan Leekpai is also nominated.

Chuan has dismissed the possibility of him taking the party’s leadership. However, that he has not dismissed the possibility of him becoming a prime ministerial nominee totally has prompted some intriguing speculation, especially when Ahbisit has been directly and indirectly involved in the on-going political divide.

Pheu Thai, aware that party dissolution could result in its executives being banned from politics, would “play it safe” again by naming the party leader, who is an executive position, and candidate for prime minister separately. This is a formula that provided preemptive immunity for Yingluck Shinawatra in the 2011 election.

So far, Pheu Thai has been silent on who will lead the party and who will be its prime ministerial candidate. A name worth mentioning is former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, but even he faces the questions of whether he is really “sellable” as candidate for prime minister and whether his possible nomination could inflame anti-Thaksin sentiment among opponents.

The Democrat and Pheu Thai parties can face a tough challenge from a pro-military movement, which is still forming and may or may not get a fair share of parliamentary seats. If the new camp becomes powerful, the election can be a three-pronged battle.

Defections from Pheu Thai to join the pro-military camp in the mainstream politics have fueled speculation that Prayut wants to remain at the country’s helm after the election. Exactly how he will achieve that remains to be seen, and things will be clearer when the election decree is issued.

Many people, however, believe that the election should come quite early. A former coup leader deciding to join democratic exercise will certainly be exposed to character attacks, meaning the shorter the election campaign, the better for him. – By ThaiPBS World’s Political Desk