Opposition gambles on coronavirus, dust and censure

When it comes to an outbreak of a fearsome disease, nobody is right all along and nobody is wrong all the time. Like the Prayut government, the opposition is grappling with the coronavirus and its apparent ability to turn political triumph into loss, and vice versa.

The thin lines are obvious between complacency and overreaction that can cause damaging panic; between disrespect for human rights and what needs to be done; and between constructive criticism and disruptive comments that can only make things worse.

The Thai opposition has so far been respectfully sensible on the coronavirus, but a few eyebrow-raising noises have been heard. The leader of the Thai Civilized Party has proposed shutting down Thailand virtually entirely to prevent the virus from slipping in through tourism. A member of the Future Forward Party has mocked what he said was the government’s slow reaction by suggesting the virus should be renamed “Chan-o-cha”.

The Future Forward Party is also asking the government what took it so long regarding the evacuation of Thais from Wuhan. This appears to be genuine concern, but to the anti-government camp in the social media, the issue has become big ammunition to attack the administration with. Against a backdrop of heavy criticism in the social media, academic and political activist Seri Wongmontha has warned that among issues that shall never be politicised, the coronavirus is definitely one of them.

Seri has a point. Politicisation can give birth to rumours or blatantly fake news, which can cause unnecessary and potentially damaging panic and knee-jerk reactions. It’s a big gamble as far as the opposition is concerned.

The coronavirus and industrial dust issues are unfolding against a backdrop of the opposition’s long delay in submitting a censure motion. The Prayut government had been supposed to be grilled near the end of last year, but worries about the public being too indulged in festivities to pay attention to a political debate postponed the plan. Early January was then earmarked for the motion submission, but the Chinese New Year near the end of the month apparently sparked the same concern. The planned submission was postponed to January 20, but the date also passed.

Speculation regarding the frequent delays has been rife. Maybe the opposition parties were still undecided over whether they should censure the entire government or individual ministers. The former option may be better at painting a picture of inefficient national management, but the latter is better at driving a wedge among coalition parties.

Or maybe the opposition is simply not in possession of earth-shattering information yet. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s oath recital controversy or Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s luxury watch issue, for example, have been debated inside and out and renewing them at the censure debate could just bore the public. And as parliamentary history shows, “political topics” don’t work as well as corruption scandals at no-confidence forums.

Or maybe the opposition parties are not just having simple and minor disagreement, and their conflicts are serious. Possible hints are probably in Pheu Thai’s strategist Chalerm Yoobamrung’s insistence that censuring Prawit could be a waste of time, and possibly illegal considering he has been cleared of “unusually wealthy” charges. His stand could have irked a lot of opposition MPs who want to take Prawit to task, believing that a censure motion without his name on it will never sell.

Or maybe it’s the basic issue of not having enough eloquent MPs to attract the audience. Many sharp-tongued politicians, Chalerm included, have failed to make their ways to Parliament, primarily due to the dissolution of the Thai Raksachat Party and the controversial electoral calculations that wiped out Pheu Thai’s entire party list. It should also be noted that Pheu Thai had never been in the opposition before and most Future Forward MPs will have to speak on the parliamentary floor for the very first time.

The whole speculation has nothing to do with the coronavirus and dust problems, which are real issues affecting man in the street. Yet the two issues have apparently further complicated the opposition’s situation. How can the opposition parties attack the government’s handling of the coronavirus and dust problems without chastising the public health minister, who happens to be the leader of a coalition party they would love to have on their side?

Latest reports said the censure motion would finally be submitted to Parliament on Friday, January 31. Pheu Thai sources were quoted as saying that Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul would be among nine Cabinet members grilled. This means the opposition has decided to do away with an opportunity to please the Bhumjaithai Party by leaving it on the fence. It also means that the opposition’s criticism against the government regarding the coronavirus over the past few days has left the bloc with no other choice.

Apart from Prayut and Anutin, named in the motion include Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana, and Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao.

An opinion poll shows the long delay of the no-confidence offensive has chipped away at public anticipation of shocking evidence of wrongdoings. However, the delay might have given the opposition more time to gather information and prepare itself. In the end, it’s the formation that counts, not the timing.

The same can be said of the opposition’s handling of the coronavirus. As of now, it looks like the opposition is awkwardly grappling with the situation and is having its hands tied in the process. But what will finally matter is what is said in Parliament, where the bloc needs to convince the public that everything it does, it does it for them.


By: Tulsathit Taptim




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