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“A Win-Win Scenario for General Prayut” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

2019/14, 4 February 2019

Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayut Chanocha has made up his mind. But he has only revealed this much: if he wants to stay on in power, he will allow the Phalang Pracharat Party to list him as a candidate for the premiership in the country’s 24 March 2019 elections.
 
Actually, General Prayut will surprise no one if he finally accepts the invitation of Phalang Pracharat to be its leading candidate for prime minister in the upcoming general elections. Each party can name up to three candidates for the premiership, with lists to be made public during the registration of election candidates during 4-8 February.

The four economic ministers in the Prayut government who set up Phalang Pracharat have consistently dropped strong hints about their tacit support for the general’s staying on as prime minister. They have now finally tendered their resignations from the cabinet, effective 30 January. Apparently they bowed out because of growing public outcry against the conflict of interest inherent in their remaining as members of a government that was organizing polls in which a party that they had founded was to compete. They had long claimed that they could do their party work without utilising government resources, on weekends and public holidays or after official hours.

One of the political innovations introduced in Thailand’s 2017 constitution is a binding twenty-year National Strategy for long-term reforms during the 2018-2037 period, adopted in October 2018.

As the watchdog safeguarding the National Strategy, 250 unelected senators — mostly handpicked by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta — will comprise the membership of the senate for five years after the upcoming elections. They will monitor implementation of the National Strategy. Every government will be required to submit a quarterly report on that implementation to the National Assembly, consisting of the 500-member lower house and the 250-member senate.

Another constitutional innovation is to involve the same senators during that same five-year period in the selection of the prime minister from among figures on political parties’ lists of candidates for the post. The upper and lower houses will hold a joint sitting to vote on the selection. A successful candidate will need the support of more than half of members of the two chambers combined, or 376 votes, assuming there is full membership of each chamber.
 
The complicated process for selecting senators for royal appointment is now underway. But it has attracted little public interest, because the NCPO will in practice name  244 “suitable persons”,  with the remaining  six seats going on an ex officio basis to holders of the posts of Defence Permanent Secretary, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Army Commander, Navy Commander, Air Force Commander, and National Police Chief.

Constitutionally, the appointed senators are supposed to be independent. But the NCPO seems confident that they would do the right thing — that is, support General Prayut’s bid for the Thai premiership.  After all, he will remain head of the powerful junta until a new government takes office.

General Prayut notes that he has until 8 February, the last day of the registration of election candidates, reveal his final decision. If and when he accepts Phalang Pracharat’s invitation to be its leading candidate for prime minister, will he resign from both the NCPO and the premiership? He may have made up his mind on this question, too. But he has dropped strong hints that he will not resign.

General Prayut stands to reap the greatest political gain if the Phalang Pracharat Party and its allies are successful. These parties just need to win 126 seats in the lower house — a distinct possibility. Their elected members of parliament can then team up with the 250 senators to carry General Prayut back to the premiership.    

But don’t mention any conflicts of interest now. General Prayut thinks he is setting a new standard for Thai politics with the way that he is playing all political cards close to his chest. 
 
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs in the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.