And the fight continues …
One chapter has just been closed. Prayut Chan-o-cha’s nail-biting survival act is in the middle of the book at most, with Thailand’s political turmoil only entering a new phase, where divisions are more glaring and more generational, violence always lurks and foreign influences affect both sides of the standoff more openly and probably more aggressively.
Win or lose, Prayut is a proxy. Like Thaksin Shinawatra, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit or Piyabutr Saengkannokkul, he just represents one side in the ideological showdown which began when Thailand ended the absolute monarchy nearly a century ago. When all of them are gone, new faces will take the centre stage. In many ways, Thai politics is like Jerusalem during its long chaotic, musical-chair period.
In hindsight, Prayut always had the logical advantage in the tenure debate, as any law shall not retroactively affect people, or chaos can reign supreme. His opponents relied pretty much on unclear parts of the Constitution and perhaps what it “forgot” to say. But, having said that, the eight-year limit makes perfect sense because it is supposed to prevent anyone from getting too addicted to power and foster the democratic spirit of passing on the torch. In other words, those saying that Prayut had overstayed his welcome are sensible, too.
The Constitutional Court’s ruling in favor of Prayut staying on in power will generate immediate effects. Protests may rock the capital again. Social media will be on fire one more time. Opposition MPs will bemoan it. Many academics, locally and abroad, will criticize it.
But the true effect is none of those. The immediate consequences are virtually nothing if the widely-held speculation that winds of change will blow after next year’s general election shall come true. The scenario could come quick enough and it would render Prayut’s next few months next to useless politically.
The real impact, therefore, has to do with the fact that he will remain the “proxy” after the next election. To his opponents, that is the true pain in the neck. Despite his continually-dropping popularity (He trails Paetongtarn Shinawatra and Pita Limjaroenrat in virtually every survey of approval ratings), Prayut remains the best his camp has got. The prime minister out of the picture for good would have been of tremendous advantage to the other side.
Prawit Wongsuwan, who has served as caretaker prime minister, has old wounds ready to be reopened any time and he is far less popular than Prayut. Anutin Charnvirakul probably is too “conventional” and can hardly match prime ministerial candidates of the other camp. Abhisit Vejjajiva is finding it harder and harder to return as Democrat leader while current Democrat chief Jurin Laksanawisit is having so much intra-party trouble to contend with.
Prayut, helped by his incumbent status, still stands above all of them. When the dust settles down, how much of his willingness and enthusiasm remains will be known. He has just got up from an eight count but looks like he would be defeated anyway. He may just say “I have had enough”, or he will decide to die fighting.
As for the opposition, they can use his “unfair survival” as a rallying cry going into the general election. As a matter of fact, the Constitutional Court’s ruling can actually benefit Pheu Thai in that poll if the party exploits it smartly. A disqualification could have triggered the “sympathy factor” which might not be good for Pheu Thai, which is weighing the value of “hitting the iron while it’s hot” against the virtue of patience.
As for the Thai public, it’s the same. The virtue of patience will be tested to the limits. How the Constitutional Court verdict will be handled will speak volumes for the country’s future. Cutting corners _ coups and bloody uprisings _ has deprived Thailand of a prerequisite for normal, long-term, and undisrupted national progress.
Whereas Prayut has been able to stay on, his supporters will need to redefine their preferred means to accomplish “better politics” in which democracy is honest, transparent, and genuinely fair. Prayut’s haters will also have to do the same. Coups have failed to deliver peaceful and just politics, and they stemmed from a lack of standards or morality, a situation that must not be followed or anti-coup activists can become their own enemies.
Thailand’s ideological fight is far from over. We know that from the Constitutional Court’s ruling, and we will learn some more from what happens next.
By Tulsathit Taptim