BANGKOK-- For four years, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha heaped insults on Thailand's politicians and flaunted his military pedigree -- former army chief, coup leader, head of the ruling junta -- as making him superior to elected lawmakers. Now, the famously gruff and short-tempered strongman is doing an about-turn, as he sets his sights on a career in politics himself.
Prayuth betrayed his intentions during some recent forays into the provinces, where he hobnobbed with leaders of powerful political clans who command sizeable rural vote banks. One visit in mid-December to Ratchaburi, a province west of Bangkok, was arranged by a senior Bangkok-based general, according to a political insider. It saw Prayuth teeing-off for a round of golf with influential provincial leaders.
Likewise, he has made overtures to scions of influential political families in the central province of Suphanburi and the eastern province of Chonburi. He also visited Sukhothai, an ancient capital of Siam, as Thailand was previously known.
As he starts to map out his post-junta career, Prayuth has also been taking stock of voters in southern Thailand. Many there backed his 2014 coup against the elected Pheu Thai government, which drew its main support from the north and northeast.
According to a Western diplomatic source, Prayuth is counting in the south on a well-respected civil servant, Grisda Boonrach, who became agriculture minister in November in Prayuth's fifth cabinet reshuffle. Previously, Grisda was permanent secretary in the powerful interior ministry and governor of the southern province of Songkhla. Both posts gave him ample access to large swathes of rural Thailand. "He is Prayuth's man to get the southern votes," said the diplomat.
Analysts expect Prayuth to develop his political base, mixing behind-the-scenes manoeuvers with public statements. In early January, he surprised reporters after a cabinet meeting by commenting that he is "a politician who used to be a soldier." The remark came amid political chatter that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta's official name, is in the throes of forming a military-backed political party to contest the next general election. After multiple postponements, the national poll was supposed to be held in late 2018, but on Thursday the National Legislative Assembly, the military's appointed parliament, voted 192-12 to pass a bill that may further delay the election, possibly until 2019.
When he made his comment, Prayuth had just invoked Section 44 of the post-coup constitution -- dubbed the "dictator's law" for the sweeping absolute powers it gives him -- to permit newly formed political parties to start recruiting members from Mar. 1. The new parties will get a head start against large existing parties like the conservative Democrats and Pheu Thai, which are still banned from political activity by the junta. Pheu Thai is backed by the junta's nemesis, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who leads Thailand's most influential political clan but continues to live in exile as a fugitive from justice.
Some observers believe Prayuth's quest for a political life in post-junta Thailand is meant to provide him with a "soft landing" that assures his safety. The prime minister's provincial visits and courting of influential people there all tie in with the creation of a pro-Prayuth political party, said Sanit Nakajitti, director of PSA Asia, a political risk and security consultancy in Bangkok. "Prayuth is in campaign mode to gain support and he wants to dilute Thaksin's influence in the provinces," Sanit told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Thailand's 20th constitution, drafted by junta appointees, already has ample provisions that favor Prayuth, including the composition of a 250-member, unelected upper house endowed with significant power to determine the shape and fate of the next government. In the defense ministry, some military officials already joke about the next senate being the "military party."
Prayuth's emerging exit strategy dovetails with the wishes of Thailand's old entrenched elites, drawn from a network of minor royals, ultra-royalists, senior military figures, and civil servants, as well as many of Bangkok's commercial kingpins. In early 2014, ultra-royalists mobilized on Bangkok's streets to prevent the Pheu Thai caretaker government staging a general election. The political unrest paved the way for Thailand's 12th successful coup since 1932. Some of those behind the coup believed the junta needed five years to impose a new political order that weakened the influence of a freely elected parliament. This strategy was intended to contain Thaksin's parties, which have won every general elections since 2001.
According to Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank, the more hawkish among the old elites are behind Prayuth's latest political game plan. "They will back Prayuth, who is seeking long-term power, even if it means delaying the elections, until he can build legitimacy and popularity," Kan told the Nikkei Asian Review. He sees a kind of Cold War thinking in play with the Thaksin political juggernaut as the existential enemy. "They may be able to stall, halt, and suppress Thaksin's base for a while," he said.
As Thailand enters a decisive year, the military government has expanded the powers of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), a security agency created during the Cold War to suppress communist insurgencies. ISOC has been given more powers to monitor and control countrywide security and perceived threats. There are an estimated 500,000 people involved with internal security along with tens of thousands informers in the citizenry.
Once regarded as a state within a state, ISOC could be valuable to the junta if the political temperature rises, monitoring local politicians and reinforcing Prayuth's penchant for top-down politics as the best way to run Thailand.