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Thai election faces new delay as scandal scrambles junta

Military-appointed legislature moves to postpone enforcement of election law

Prem Tinsulanonda, left, a former prime minister and still a political heavyweight in Thailand, meets junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha in Bangkok on Dec. 28, 2017. Prem warned Prayuth that the junta is losing the support of the people. (Photo by Hiroshi Kotani)

BANGKOK -- Elections paving the way for Thailand's return to civilian rule could face additional delays that give the military junta time to recover from a high-profile alleged corruption.

A panel of lawmakers vetting a bill on lower-house parliamentary elections voted for changes that would postpone its enforcement, Thai media report. The bill would take effect 90 days after being published in the country's official Royal Gazette, instead of immediately after publication as is typical.

Thailand's military-drafted constitution, approved by the king in April 2017, mandates that elections be held within 150 days of several necessary electoral laws taking effect. Delaying enforcement of one law by three months would slow the entire process, while having the bill take effect immediately would allow for elections by November 2018, when Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has said they will occur.

"If the election takes place before November, it's not good for the [military] government," an anonymous source quoted by Thai newspaper The Nation said. "They need time to prepare the budget and bureaucratic transfers. Political parties also need time to prepare for the election."

But many remain unconvinced a postponement is needed on administrative grounds. Another source suggested to The Nation that the delay could be a bid to give pro-junta parties time to prepare.

Thailand's National Legislative Assembly, whose members are appointed by the junta, is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.

Protecting the status quo

The major divide between Thailand's two main political parties concerns former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Pheu Thai Party, a descendant of the group founded by Thaksin, dominates the country's north and northeast, while the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party carries the south. But both groups stand firmly against the autocratic military government and have called for a quick return to civilian rule.

Yet new groups are expected to spring up in support of sustaining the military's deep involvement in politics and keeping Prayuth -- the retired military officer who leads the junta -- as prime minister after the election. These groups will need all the preparation they can get to face their more established pro-civilian rivals.

CSI LA posted on Facebook photographs of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon wearing a large number of luxury watches. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

Taweesak Suthakavatin, a spokesperson for the panel examining the election bill, denied that the junta ordered the changes, according to the Bangkok Post. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam also insisted the government did not interfere with legislative debate.

But the national assembly often is viewed as little more than a rubber stamp for the military government. Many critical of the junta suspect the decision to delay enforcement stems from a covert order, or at least a nudge, by the junta.

Scandal's bad timing

Elections already are a long time coming. Prayuth, leading a coup in May 2014 when he was the commander in chief of the army, said the junta aimed to hold elections in October 2015. Those did not come to pass, and the military government has held power for nearly three and a half years since formally taking charge in September 2014.

But an alleged graft involving Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has put the government in perhaps its worst position ever to win over supporters, another potential incentive to seek more time to prepare.

Prawit, who also serves as defense minister, led Thailand's army for one year starting in October 2004 -- a post later held by Prayuth. He and Prawit -- along with Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, another former army chief -- are particularly close among the junta's top leadership.

But those bonds have been tested since Dec. 4, when Prawit was seen in a photo of Prayuth's reshuffled cabinet wearing what the internet later identified as a luxury Richard Mille watch and a diamond-studded ring estimated to be worth at least 4 million baht ($125,920). Earlier photos of the minister reveal at least 25 high-end watches worth nearly 40 million baht in all -- quite a stretch for someone on a military salary.

The watches do not appear on past lists of Prawit's assets. The former general told reporters he had borrowed the watches and wore them only occasionally, insisting he is not a collector. But few are convinced, and Prawit faces growing calls for his resignation.

Lackluster response

Prayuth also has taken criticism for his response to the scandal. When questioned about the allegations against his deputy, the leader said only that the independent National Anti-Corruption Commission was handling the matter. On Tuesday, he even went on to say that the case is "a personal matter," showing his will to cover for Prawit.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister and head of the Democrat Party, has warned Prayuth that the scandal could hurt his credibility and damage his chances of returning to office once elections are held. Polling conducted over the weekend showed the junta chief's approval rating at 37%, down from 53% last May.

One expert in Thai politics considers Prawit largely responsible for many of the junta's key activities, such as controlling the military and bureaucracy as well as managing negotiations with Thailand's pro-Thaksin set. If so, the government could have trouble functioning without its chief dealmaker. For a group that blasts traditional politicians as corrupt and touts itself as an exemplar of clean government, the charge of hypocrisy is difficult to avoid.

People in Thailand vote during the referendum on a draft constitution at a polling station in Bangkok on Aug. 7, 2016. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

Thaksin supporters calling for a thorough investigation may not have been enough to cause problems for the junta, which has largely kept its activities out of the public eye. But high-profile figures seen as pro-junta now are pursuing the allegations including Srisuwan Janya, head of a group seeking to protect the Thai constitution; Rosana Tositrakul, a former senator; and even Pridiyathorn Devakula, a former deputy prime minister under the junta.

Not going anywhere

Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army commander and prime minister who heads Thailand's Privy Council, also warned Prayuth that he is losing his support base, possibly suggesting the consequences of the latest watch scandal, when top junta leaders visited Prem's home in late December. Prem, calling the prime minister by his nickname "Tu," also encouraged Purayuth that the leader still could win over the public by serving as a good role model.

Stock market has not reacted much to the political turmoil so far. The benchmark Stock Exchange of Thailand index is still on the upward trend since beginning of the year, and on Wednesday morning it neared the record high just reached on Jan. 18.

Prayuth seems prepared to do whatever it takes to stay in power. Early this month, the leader told reporters he was merely "a politician who used to be a soldier" -- a shocking about-face by a leader who, for much of his tenure, positioned himself in opposition to supposedly corrupt professional politicos. In the second half of 2017, Prayuth began holding cabinet meetings in locations around Thailand, using the occasions to tout measures meant to reinvigorate regional economies.

If the national assembly votes to amend the election bill as proposed by the panel, Prayuth will have another year or so to continue what looks very much like a campaign for office. If he remains prime minister into 2019, he also will serve as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in that year, with all the power and prestige that role carries. How the ongoing scandal plays out will set the course of Prayuth's and Thailand's political future.

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