Though the leader of Thailand’s ruling junta seemed poised to triumph Wednesday in his bid to be named prime minister, opposition figures were not letting him cruise back to Government House unbloodied.
During a joint session of both houses of parliament convened in the auditorium of the state telecom provider, members took turns registering objections to his rule and demanding that he appear in person to make his case to lawmakers as they deliberate.
Just after 4pm, after five hours of debate, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai’s call for closure so the vote could be taken up was recalled after a member objected, saying that the process normally takes 10 hours. The debate was extended for at least another two hours.
Earlier, a high-profile opposition figure drove home the argument that Prayuth should be there to make his case.
“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.
Prayuth has made no public speech laying out his ambitions as prime minister and Pannika was among those to call for him and his rival, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, to stand before parliament and make their cases. Prayuth made clear through an intermediary just yesterday that he had no intention of appearing today.
His backers argued it was unnecessary.
“I don’t believe the candidates should make their pitches because there are no requirements in our law that requires our prime minister to do so,” said Phalang Pracharat’s Pada Worakanon. “I don’t think we should waste time … and go ahead with the vote for the 30th prime minister.”
Thanathorn, the progressive Future Forward leader who became the sole nominee to face Prayuth of a seven-party bloc, was waiting in the wings, ready to address the assembly. Denied an invitation, he made his case at an impromptu news conference just outside at 1pm.
“The world is full of competition, trade wars and an economic slowdown that has all affected us all, no matter if you’re an employee or a business owner. Whether you’re still working or have retired. Whether you are in Bangkok or Songkhla or Udon Thani, we have all been affected by these changing factors,” he said. “Because of this, our new leader has to be able to keep up with changing technologies in order to position ourselves [with] the rest of the world. We have to understand the reality of the world.”
“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. Thailand has endured many tragedies and struggles: World War II, the Cold War, the economic Tom Yum Kung crisis. … Right now though, we are like a frog sitting in hot water,” he added.
Speaking on behalf of the seven parties opposed to Prayuth, Pheu Thai’s Cholnan Srikaew said he was unfit to be prime minister in a long address continuing past 1pm.
“In the past five years, I believe the people have seen with their own eyes, that Prayuth came into power by taking it by force from the people,” he said. “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.”
Other objections were raised on the floor as soon as the vote was tabled at about 11:40am. Khajit Chainikom, who represents Udon Thani for the New Aspiration Party, said it was unfair the parliament and not the people were choosing who would lead them as prime minister. A number of procedural objections were raised as MPs said the process was inconsistent with what was in the law.
The parliament had nearly emptied out just before 2pm when Phalang Pracharath’s Korranit Ngamsukonratana, who represents part of the capital in Khlong Toei, stepped up to endorse Prayuth’s leadership before many empty seats.
“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.
“He was the first prime minister who went to the Khlong Toei slums,” she said. “He hugged everyone from children to seniors. I don’t think many prime ministers would do that.”
But House Speaker Chuan Leekpai is keeping things on track, and the pro-junta coalition has the numbers on their side.
Prayuth is 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, denied 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 chosen to chair 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 also 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. Pundits have expected little difficulty in him securing the post as the junta-leader-cum-prime minister spent years tilting the playing field in his favor.
But his ride back to Government House didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. Despite backing a constitution that rewrote the rules in his favor and quashing dissent through the years, Prayuth 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.
This is a developing story and may be updated without notice.
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