Prayut must quit as junta chief, premier
Election and aftermath can be neither free nor fair otherwise
Outsiders might have been confused on Monday when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared his interest in a political career. A naive observer might believe that a general whose military coup toppled an elected government four years ago would have no interest in politics.
But while Prayut claimed that the coup was needed to maintain civil order and reconcile deep national divisions, in fact political agitators, military elements and elite interests had been protesting on the streets since late 2013 in what turned out to be a precursor for military takeover.
Once in office, Prayut and his crew have done everything to secure and extend their political power. Every order he has made as junta chief, every law passed by the rubber-stamp assembly, and every gagging or jailing of opposition voices has been aimed to secure Prayut’s political status and future.
But while his actions are clear, his words have been consistently inconsistent. Sometimes Prayut has said he is not interested in politics. Other times that he is a military man-cum-politician. He complains of being tired of working for the country. But then he says he wants to continue his work for the sake of the national interest and the people.
His announcement on Monday made headlines but surprised few people, since Prayut’s associates have been busy preparing the ground for his political career. Factions have announced they will form political parties to support his bid for leadership after the election.
The political lines have been drawn already, with Prayut’s supporters on one side and his opponents on the other.
The odds are heavily stacked in his favour, especially if he retains his power as junta chief and premier when he joins the race for the premiership.
Legally speaking, he is not allowed to run for Parliament while he holds political office. But that is not a problem if Prayut wants to be prime minister, not an MP.
Under the junta-sponsored constitution and its organic laws, parties can propose Prayut as the next PM after the election. He would need only 126 votes from lower-house MPs since the junta would pick up 250 votes from the appointed Senate. Unless his opponents win a landslide election victory, Prayut’s path to the premiership is open.
While is own political activities remain subject to restrictions, his Cabinet members and supporters face no such limitations and are in fact enhanced by legal instruments and mechanisms designed by junta loyalists.
The political playing field has been tilted so far in his favour that few observers doubt the eventual outcome.
Prayut compounded that view on Monday when he told reporters he would not be stepping down from political positions before or during the election. His powers as premier and junta chief will be irresistible to political parties or groups considering whether to lend him their support.
Of course, the world already knows Prayut cares little for fairness, or he would not have used military might to seize power four years ago.
We can only hope now that he declines to exploit the national budget to fund his political campaign.
Though belated, that would be a step towards returning political norms and progress. Even better would be if Prayut relinquishes all power he holds so that we can maximise our chances of a free and fair election and resulting governance.