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No one should have any doubts about Prayut Chan-o-cha’s future political path. Reading between the lines of his statements, it’s now plain that the function of the coming election is to legitimise and extend the general’s stay in power.
Monday was the deadline for politicians to choose parties they want to join, 90 days ahead of the election scheduled for February 24.
But that timeframe only applied for ordinary politicians. Junta chief Prayut is an exceptional case. He has the backing of the junta-sponsored Constitution, which allows him to retain his post as prime minister without receiving a single vote from the people.
While parties such as Palang Pracharat and the Action Coalition for Thailand have announced they were launched in order to secure Prayut in that post, the junta chief said it was unnecessary for him to join their election bid.
“I talked to the legal team: I don’t need to be a member or anything,” Prayut said, adding that he had not been approached by any party. He also said his political future would be clearer once all the electoral laws were in place.
“I don’t know if I will accept the invitation [of any party]. Let’s see what I decide and if their offer matches my desires,” Prayut told reporters.
The words indicate Prayut wants to be viewed as an angelic presence, hovering above the evil election fray before eventually incarnating when the winners invite him to rule the country.
Political parties must, by law, list their candidates for the government top job. But Prayut can rest safe in the knowledge that the law also says if MPs fail to select a candidate from party lists, they can ask Parliament to allow the candidacy of “outsiders”.
The junta chief, who in 2014 staged a coup to oust a government that enjoyed a popular mandate, can also afford to ignore whatever campaign policies and promises are made to voters by parties.
The votes of Thais will be rendered meaningless. Whatever policies of the parties they vote for, the politicians who pledged them will flock to support Prayut in an extension of his rule.
While analysts regard parties like the Democrats and Bhumjaithai as the pivotal factor, since their backing may be needed by the
winner to form the government, some politicians are adamant they will not ally with “proxies” of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They prefer, in other words, to join the bandwagon supporting Prayut as next prime minister, rather than their own party leaders.
Prayut believes that his pet social welfare project Pracharat – a name co-opted by the Palang Pracharat Party that supports him – will win the hearts and minds of voters. This is a favourite strategy among the Thai elite: exploiting the national budget for political gain by forging populist giveaways.
The hands of the people have already been tied ahead of the election. The junta’s 20-year strategic plan offers parties a stark choice: toe its policy line or be thrown out of government.
Thais do, though, have a way of exercising what little democratic will remains in their hands. With their ballots in February, they can show their opinion of four year’s rule under Prayut.
The result could at least pull the country in a direction away from the military-backed and authoritarian regime of the last four years.