Thailand’s political dysfunction under Prayut-Chan-o-Cha

Hope and progression rarely describe Thai politics; after countless coup d’états and junta governments, Thailand’s most recent constitution ended liberal democracy. After five years of junta regime, the election with its new rules and regulations was explicitly crafted for a military-backed win. However, not even after a full term in government, the once-guaranteed electoral success may have turned out to be a monumental failure. Disagreement surrounding the constitution’s wording and when Prayut Chan-o-Cha became the Prime Minister is the main topic of Thai politics, with the judge’s ruling shaping the country’s future, no matter the decision. This article will understand the constitutional crisis, the aftermath of the decision, and the controversy surrounding the APEC meeting.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), in the 2014 coup d’état, aimed to remove the Shinawatra family from politics and diminish their influence as a major party. As Yingluck Shinawatra became another ousted Prime Minister, on 24th August 2014, HM Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed General Prayut Chan-o-Cha as Thailand’s 29th Prime Minister. During the NCPO regime, there were attempts at a new constitution to cement military power for the long term. Including a military-appointed Senate, political institutions and courts filled with loyalists, and a confusing party list MP system would favour the military back parties. The 2017 constitution included Section 158, stating that “The Prime Minister shall not hold office for more than eight years in total”. Section 158 had plunged the government into turmoil, as the constitutional court accepted the opposition filing to investigate when Prayut Chan-o-Cha became the Prime Minister. Agreeing to investigate, Prayut was suspended from all duties as Prime Minister on 24th August 2022, allowing 15 days to provide evidence. There are three options for the court to investigate, with the suspension already causing shockwaves within the governing party and the acting PM.

The suspension is monumental, especially for the General, who seemed unstoppable, and only for negative reasons. Since taking office, his bullish attitudes have caused the economy to weaken, allowed social unrest to deteriorate, and relied on the monarchy to take the heat off the government. Despite these issues, it would have seemed six months ago that Prayut was going nowhere. Surviving four no-confidence votes and allegedly using lèse-majesté to protect government interest, Prayut’s luck may have finally run out. Prayut as a character is notably unpopular. From throwing banana peels at journalists to publicly saying he would ‘execute’ those who spread dissatisfactory news about the junta. Once the news broke of his suspension, minor celebrations broke out by Democracy Monument, with the understanding that another military loyalist would replace this General.

Prayut’s stand in was General Prawit Wongsuwan. A military royalist with a career solely in the armed forces. Currently, leader of Palang Pracharath, PPRP, the military-backed party, he has been known to be a potent mediator between business elites, the military, and Bangkok’s most powerful. He was becoming susceptible to possible allegations of corruption with the ownership of over 25 luxury watches and diamond rings. Prawit’s referral to the National Anti-Corruption Committee was not considered due to the lack of evidence and Prawit claiming the watches were on loan. But for somebody claiming to be dedicated to public service, possibly owning 25 Rolex watches is questionable. Along with corruption allegations, infighting within Palang Paracharath was exposed with plots to oust Prayut due to his sinking popularity and poor electability running up to the 2023 election. Prawit has allegedly been behind this plot, a rumour staunchly dismissed.

Prawit’s caretaker role is a string of humiliation for Prayut, with the Bangkok governor election in early 2022. The PPRP-backed candidate Sakoltee Phattiyakul won 8% of the vote share, coming 4th out of 7 candidates. In stark contrast to Bangkok’s new governor Chadchart Sittipunt, a former Pheu Thai minister running as an independent, took 52% of the vote share, over 40 points ahead of the next candidate. While Bangkok is a modern city, there are pro-military pockets with MPs represented by PPRP; this election wiped out any hope of support. This trend has been ongoing throughout the country, with former appointed or conservative strongholds switching to Pheu Thai or similar parties. Similarly to the courts, the Electoral Commission was filled by the junta loyalists back under the regime with the purpose of limiting opposition parties from gaining power. As the people of Bangkok saw the results, they waited for the Electoral Commission’s confirmation, with initial fears of meddling by the government to nullify the election. Despite fears, state institutions began turning their back on the regime, implying it was no longer fit for purpose, in line with the constitutional court’s wider decision to suspend Prayut.

If the court decide to reinstate Prayut as the Prime Minister, social unrest will once again break out, with demonstrators already stating they will be out protesting by Democracy Monument no matter the result. The court will then decide when Prayut’s term will end, but given the political background, the military will bend the rules to suit their needs. However, within PPRP, Prawit loyalists will be sharpening their knives once again to bring down a weak and battered Prayut and, leading to an unstable government allowing the opposition to continue pushing for another no-confidence vote and a possible early General Election. A constitutional crisis may also occur, as Prayut was appointed PM under the late King Bhumibol, who is still greatly revered in Thai society. If the court and government say that Prayut began in 2017, it opens the question that the appointment by the former late king meant nothing. In what would be wholly hypothetical thought, the government’s actions could breach lèse-majesté. For if this was to take place would lead to a constitutional crisis like no other hence why it is not going to happen, but in the way Thai politics works, it is a possibility.

However, if the court decides that Prayut has exceeded his time in office, it will bring a widespread shock. A court-appointed by the military to act against their interest will spell anger and a possible backlash by the government and their backers. Prawit will formally take over, which calls into question when/if an election is called. This may call the government to say this is a new administration. Therefore, an election is not required. What happens to Prayut and his loyalists has yet to be discovered. Prayut Chan-o-Cha has currently said that if he is asked to step down permanently, he will go without hesitation, but this does not seem likely given his characteristics.

Or, in an unlikely scenario, a coup. To strengthen military power, rewrite the constitution once again, rid personnel in institutions that have proved not to be loyal enough to the military, and bring Thailand back to square one. But if a coup were to happen, demonstrations would be more significant than the destruction of Black May 1992, given the anger towards the government.

The constitutional court reached an outcome on 30th August, ruling in Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s favour. The court had decided that Prayut’s term began in 2017, allowing him to remain in the post until 2025. Unexpectantly, this has left more questions than answers. Infighting within PPRP has only increased with calls that Prawit and Prayut stand against each other for Prime Minister in the same party or rumours that Prayut will jump ship to a new political party. But even if Prayut is re-elected, he can only remain in the position for two years unless there is another constitutional change. What is known is the uncertainty of how the next year will play out with elections and another no-confidence vote in parliament against Prayut, with predictions he may actually lose the confidence of the House. Leading to suspicions parliament will be dissolved on Christmas eve to avoid further scrutiny.

This now only leaves the controversy surrounding APEC 2022. Hosted in the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, QSNCC, gathering some of the world’s most powerful leaders. In the lead-up to the main conference, police and government had created no-protest zones to present Thailand positively. Although protestors originating in Democracy Monument were readying to move towards the QSNCC, police requested demonstrators to remain in their designated space. Within minutes, the situation worsened with violent clashes with riot police using rubber bullets, batons, and shields to push away protestors against APEC. Law and order under the eyes of the Prayut regime have been to attack peaceful protestors, with footage emerging of a monk being hit with a baton and riot shield, bouncing off a store shutter to be continuously beaten by the police. Images such as these, graphic as they are, resonate with the anger and disgust against the government and institutions, which may have always been rotten to the core but exacerbated since the NCPO rule. Another bad look for the government in a time when they have put on their best suit to the world and another awful look against the record of General Prayut Chan-o-Cha.

Since the announcement by the constitutional court, it has been anything but plain sailing for the Prime Minister. Contextualising the issues surrounding Prayut and the impact of the final decision only leaves Thailand in one position – worse off. With the PM remaining in his post, the internal political bickering continues, with another no-confidence vote, a looming general election, and an ongoing APEC summit to forget about. Authoritarianism in Thailand is deep-rooted, with no solution in sight. Even if PPRP is removed from office, the minefield left behind by the regime will take a generation to remove, with no guarantee that the military will not interfere. The only good is if Prayut Chan-o-Cha and his loyalists are permanently out of office and institutions, allowing for a significant step towards a democratic Thailand.

Jamie Greenfield. Alumni of Westminster

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