Predictions of inevitability to ongoing rule by junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha bore out today as the 65-year-old retired general was elevated to the premiership following 12 hours of debate in parliament.
By a vote of 498 to 244, lawmakers from both the elected lower house and junta-chosen senate voted to make Prayuth, who has struggled to clothe himself in legitimacy since seizing power five year ago, the chief executive. The vote played out free of surprises; senators appointed by Prayuth’s junta voted for him as expected and only three members abstained, including House Speaker Chuan Leekpai.
Speaking moments after the vote concluded, opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit conceded, saying their effort had left nothing on the field, unlevel as it was.
While any doubts about the outcome were settled last night when the Democrat Party threw in with Prayuth, the opposition didn’t let him sail back to Government House unbloodied today.
During the deliberations, held in a state telecom auditorium – Thai democracy is between parliament buildings at the moment – members took turns blasting Prayuth as unfit, unqualified or legally ineligible to lead the country.
“Prayuth came into power by taking it by force from the people,” said Pheu Thai MP Cholnan Srikaew, holding a poster detailing reasons Prayuth should be disqualified. “After he came into power, he laid down laws that enabled his own succession of power. He is not transparent, not democratic and his behavior goes against our ethical ideology.”
Outside the building waited Prayuth’s rival, opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the Future Forward Party. Suspended from parliament through twisting of an election rule, Thanathorn, 40, held a competing news conference to lay out his vision for the nation.
“I will be the prime minister of change. We have to be brave to tackle problems at the roots. We have to think systematically and work as a team,” said Thanathorn, who was elevated to be the sole nominee of the seven-party pro-democracy bloc.
Prayuth made clear through an intermediary yesterday he had no intention of appearing today to make his case, though the auditorium resounded with calls for him to do so.
“The 50 million people who are watching at home right now have been waiting for an elected prime minister for five years now,” said Future Forward Party representative Pannika Wanich.
His many supporters, led by the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party which nominated Prayuth, argued it was unnecessary.
“I don’t believe the candidates should make their pitches because there are no requirements in our law that require our prime minister to do so,” said Palang Pracharath’s Pada Worakanon. “I don’t think we should waste time … and go ahead with the vote for the 30th prime minister.”
What that says about Prayuth’s ability to preside over a fractured parliamentary consensus where his voice is but one of many remains to be seen. He is famously short-tempered and given to lashing out at criticism, real or perceived. Under the constitution, the self-granted absolute power he’s wielded through the years is forfeit as soon as a new government is in place.
The vote came over 10 weeks after the March 24 general election saw the two main pro-democratic parties, Pheu Thai and Future Forward, place second and third with a combined 14.1 million votes compared to the 8.4 million received by Palang Pracharath. Through a baroque and eyebrow-raising process, the nominally independent Election Commission handed out party-list seats to minor parties that supported the junta but hardly won any votes.
Freshmen members from the Future Forward Party laid out some of the strongest terms.
Pannika Wanich said Prayuth’s “inappropriate behavior” disqualified him under the expectations laid out for civil servants in the recently enacted Ethical Standards Act.
“Prayuth has joked about executing a journalist. He added that he will install an execution machine used on dogs,” she said. “He’s behaved in a way that ruined our image around the world and also took press freedoms away.
Rangsiman Rome, the former student leader of the New Democracy Movement who led the cause until becoming a founding member of Future Forward, lambasted Prayuth in no sparing terms and called attention to growing violence against rights advocates.
“So many people fought for democracy, but under Prayuth, we’ve found that there have been systematic efforts to hurt these democracy activists,” he said, citing recent violent attacks carried out on protest figures including Sirawith Seritiwat, Ekachai Hongkangwan and Anurak Jeantawanich.
“Prayut stands at the very opposite of democracy. He is a dictator,” Rangsiman added.
By 2pm the building was largely deserted with many empty seats giving the impression of a walk-out, disinterest or hungry stomachs.
That’s when Korranit Ngamsukonratana, a Palang Pracharath representative in the capital’s Khlong Toei district, offered her endorsement.
“He is firm and brave in his decision-making … He came into power during a tumultuous time in Bangkok but in the last four years, under him, he’s managed to bring Thailand to peace,” she said, adding that he is a decisive leader and accessible man of the people.”
Prayuth seized power in 2014 from a Pheu Thai-led government after protesters seeking to bring it down took to the streets and seized key government offices during months of mounting protests. Protesters, led by a Democrat Party leader, called for the military to depose the government, and when it did so that May, the newly minted junta said it was doing so to restore order.
After promising to return power to the people in under a year – a promise renewed and broken annually during which time a royal transition was completed – the military government cemented its power in a new constitution and staged the election this past March.
For all the debate, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai kept things on track, and the pro-junta coalition had the numbers on its side.
Prayuth was all but assured of completing his transformation from junta head to civilian leader with the support of 250 hand-picked senators.
Prior to the session, pro-democracy activists including Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak delivered a petition urging the junta-appointed senators to abstain from voting.
At about 2:30pm, one of those junta-chosen senators, Seri Suwanphanon, rejected any democratic impropriety in the process.
“Even though the senate has been picked, we still have to follow the rules and laws regulated by the constitution,” said Seri, who was previously chaired a committee in a junta reform council. “In the last five years, how are people not free? The people have been free to do whatever they want with the exception of some political limitations. But go ask your fellow brothers and sisters whether they have been happy in the last few years.”
He said Prayuth’s experience trumped Thanathorn’s support from voters.
“If we compare the successes of the two candidates, Thanatorn and Prayuth, Prayuth has had far more experience in fixing the country’s problems,” he said.
Prior to appointing himself as the junta leader, Prayuth was the commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army.
Prayuth’s grip on power has been shakier than expected, even with the rules changed in his favor.
He encountered unexpectedly withering attacks from Thanathorn, whose newly minted Future Forward Party placed third in the March election.
But last night, Thailand’s oldest party, the Democrats, seemed to seal the deal by throwing their weight behind the pro-junta coalition, prompting its former leader and one-time PM, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to resign from parliament in protest.
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