Prawit’s reconciliation politics: Solution to political conflict or election power play?  

General Prawit Wongsuwan, leader of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, has offered himself as the man to lead the country out of its two-decade political conflict.

Prawit has floated the idea of forming a coalition government after the next general election, consisting of political parties from conflicting camps to “promote reconciliation and democracy”.

Five “open letters” posted on the general’s Facebook account over recent months have outlined his plan to set up a reconciliation government that would leave the drawn-out political conflict behind.

Political analysts say Prawit is seeking to shed his image as a representative of the authoritarian establishment and distance himself from the coup-makers. They are also unconvinced that he penned the letters himself.

Prawit, the deputy prime minister in charge of security affairs, is expected to be Palang Pracharath’s sole prime ministerial candidate in the next election tentatively scheduled for May 7. Rumors are also flying that Palang Pracharath has reached a deal with the opposition Pheu Thai Party to form a coalition after the election.

Prawit’s open letters

In his first open letter posted on January 13, Prawit insisted that his party has no connection with Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s new party, Ruam Thai Sang Chart (United Thai Nation). Prawit’s letter also claimed that Palang Pracharath was formed to help Prayut realize his wish to stay in power after the 2014 coup he led.

In his second letter posted on February 9, Prawit said politicians do not need to be good at speaking. “Instead, they have to be good at thinking and recruiting capable people to join their team. Nobody is good at everything.”

Some interpreted the comment as Prawit drawing a comparison between himself and Prayut.

Prawit’s third letter posted on February 27 outlined why Thailand needed to get over its political conflict and sought to rebrand Palang Pracharath as an alternative to the two conflicting camps.

In his fourth letter posted on March 1, Prawit said that both liberals and conservatives want honest and capable people to enter politics and serve the country. But Thailand’s political culture often saw only “professional politicians” able to win elections. Prawit said that for conservatives, a military coup was the only way to achieve a government filled with honest and capable ministers.

Prawit’s latest open letter posted on March 8 asked for a chance to rebuild the country’s democracy and patch political rifts by ending the ongoing polarization.

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Likelihood of gaining power

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a lecturer at Burapha University’s Faculty of Political Science and Law, said Prawit’s messages indicated Palang Pracharath has become more flexible about its potential partners in a post-election coalition. And with more flexibility comes more choices. This makes him convinced that the party is highly likely to return to power.

Prawit’s letters make it clear that he is trying to distance himself from General Prayut, who led the 2014 military coup while serving as the Army chief, Olarn said. But the academic also warned that the “reformed Prawit” could be just “political trickery” ahead of the election.

“Prawit is advertising himself as the ‘connecting link’ in a bid to overcome the conflict while promoting the democratic camp,” Olarn said.

He pointed out that by positioning itself in this way, Palang Pracharath could join either current coalition partners or opposition parties to form a new government. The rival camps would need support from Prawit’s party as he has guaranteed backing from a large portion of the 250 senators appointed by the post-coup junta he led alongside Prayut.

The current Constitution empowers the 250-member Senate to vote along with the 500-member House of Representatives in selecting a prime minister. A simple majority of both Houses is required for any PM candidate to win the seat.

Olarn said the opposition’s core party Pheu Thai will be unable to form a new government by itself unless it wins at least 376 House seats out of the 500 up for grabs. With that majority, Pheu Thai would not require a single vote from the Senate.

But as such a landslide victory is almost impossible, it will be difficult for Pheu Thai to ignore Prawit and the senatorial votes he has in his hand.

The academic said that in describing Thailand’s political polarization between authoritarians and liberals, Prawit seemed to place Prayut at the head of the former camp and ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra at the head of the latter.

“For him [Prawit], neither camp offers a way out [of the ongoing conflict]. He’s portraying himself as the link that brings cooperation between both camps. He’s trying to show that he has political charisma,” the analyst said.

Bid to boost chances

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, agrees that this is the only game Prawit can play to boost his chance of returning to power.

“Prawit is good at exploiting situations to his advantage. He’s trying to rebrand himself. He can talk with everyone. He knows how to deal with political negotiations better than Prayut,” Wanwichit said.

The analyst reckons that the conservatives have lower confidence in Prawit than they do in Prayut, while the “democratic camp” are not convinced Prawit is a good match for them given his years of work in the post-coup junta.

Prawit now faces a dilemma ahead of the election, he said.

Opting to go on the defensive would see his party win no more than 30 MP seats. But portraying himself as the “cohesive force” between the conflicting camps could gain his party up to 70 MP seats and also the chance to bargain for the prime minister’s seat.

“Prawit has nothing to lose,” Wanwichit said.

However, Burapha University’s Olarn reckoned that Prawit is aware of his limitations regarding age and image, which could prevent him from becoming prime minister. The academic said that in a coalition formed by Palang Pracharath and Pheu Thai, Prawit could still shadow the next prime minister even if he cannot assume the seat himself.

“I believe that the ties between Prawit and Thaksin are still in place. [Proof is that former PM] Yingluck could escape across the border under the junta’s nose,” Olarn said, referring to the flight of Thaksin’s sister before she was convicted of criminal negligence following the 2014 coup over her government’s rice subsidy scheme.

Thaksin, who is regarded as Pheu Thai’s patriarch, lives in self-exile overseas along with his younger sister.

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Opinions on brothers-in-arms

Olarn doubts voters will be convinced by Prawit’s promise to be a catalyst for political reconciliation. For him, the pledge is aimed simply to give Palang Pracharath legitimacy and a boost for its election campaign.

“Without playing this game, the party would not be able to shed its image as a ladder for coup-makers to retain political power. This campaign at least makes the party look better and creates some kind of political drama,” the academic said.

He conceded that Prawit’s effort could however bring together conflicting elites if they can agree on benefit sharing. But he said political reconciliation would not be mediated by the general-turned-politician.

Wanwichit, however, has more confidence in Prawit than Prayut when it comes to reconciliation.

“Prayut said he had no conflict with anyone but he denied working with Pheu Thai and Move Forward,” he said, referring to the two largest opposition parties. “Prawit is trying to rebrand himself and says he’s ready to talk with everyone.”

Meanwhile, Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said Prawit’s letters managed to discredit General Prayut by emphasizing that he came to power through a military coup while at the same time distancing himself from the putsch.

The analyst noted that Prawit had pulled off the same trick before. At the censure debate last July, Prawit denied any involvement in the 2014 coup and instead literally pointed his finger at Prayut while telling the House that the former Army chief was solely responsible.

However, Yuthaporn said that despite Prawit’s attempt to distance himself from the coup, he could not plausibly deny his involvement with the junta that resulted from the power seizure.

“He was part of the NCPO and its administration,” the analyst said, referring to the post-coup National Council for Peace and Order junta.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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