BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s new parliament convened on Wednesday, June 5, to vote for prime minister, with junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha tipped to sweep away the challenge of a charismatic billionaire leading the anti-military bloc.
Prayut, who seized power in 2014, is all but assured of completing his transformation from junta head to civilian leader with the support of 250 hand-picked senators.
The only competition is anti-junta coalition candidate Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who faces an uphill battle numerically and has been besieged by court cases after his Future Forward party scooped up millions of votes in a March poll.
Thailand remains bitterly divided after 13 years defined by coups, violent street protests and short-lived civilian governments.
At root is a rivalry between an arch-royalist conservative establishment — buttressed by the courts and the army — and pro-democracy parties supported by many of the lower and middle class.
MPs in black suits filed into their seats for the opening after several gave speeches outside.
In a sign of the acrimonious debate to come, former prime minister and ex-Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva resigned before taking his seat to protest his party’s decision on the eve of the session to support the junta chief.
“I cannot walk in and vote to support Prayut”, he said.
Parliament is deciding on a premier more than two months after Thailand held its first election since the last coup, a poll marred by allegations of inaccurate counting and vote-buying.
Allies of Prayut say he is a stabilising figure who can steer Thailand away from its perennial political crises.
“Prayut has the qualities, has the capability, the leadership to do the job,” Uttama Savanayana, the leader of junta proxy party Palang Pracharat, told AFP a day before the vote.
But his critics say the famously gruff ex-army chief represents a narrow elite and lacks the vision or temperament to govern as a civilian leader.
Unexpected third force
The election was cast as a choice between junta-backed rule and parties aligned with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, whose administration was toppled in 2014.
But an unexpected third force emerged led by billionaire auto-parts scion Thanathorn.
His Future Forward won more than six million votes and 81 seats to become Thailand’s third largest party.
The social media savvy 40-year-old is now heading a coalition with the Shinawatra’s main party — Pheu Thai — and five others.
Analysts say Thanathorn represents the greatest challenge to the junta and its establishment allies, with his articulate calls to bridge the kingdom’s chasmic social inequality and end the military’s influence over politics.
But Thanathorn is weighed down by legal problems that could see him banned from politics or jailed.
Those led to his suspension from parliament and a dramatic walk-out from its early sessions.
He has said the complaints are politically motivated and that the suspension had nothing to do with qualifying as a candidate for prime minister.
“The most important thing is to return Thailand to democracy,” he told reporters on the eve of the vote, calling on mid-sized parties to back him. “And to stop Prayut to come back as prime minister.”
Assuming the Thai senate votes with the junta, Thanathorn would need a gargantuan 376 votes from the lower house to emerge as premier.
Prayut, who did not attend, only needs 126.
The late pledge of support from the Democrat Party – the oldest in Thailand – should smooth his path to office.
But analysts say troubles lie ahead for a military man unused to debate and consensus-building.
“Politicians will try to make scenes… to expose Prayut,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist as Ubon Ratchathani University. – Rappler.com