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Thai election

Thailand's next government already 'hanging by a thread'

Junta leader likely to gain slim lower house majority in deal with Democrats

Although Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is close to retaining his job as prime minister, his next government has been tagged as fragile.   © AP

BANGKOK -- Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand's junta leader and incumbent prime minister, faces trying times as he steps into an unfamiliar political ring: a parliament where his pro-junta coalition is likely to have a wafer-thin majority.

It will be a far cry from the absolute control Prayuth enjoyed over the junta's rubber-stamp parliament during five years of military rule, seasoned observers say. He was then fortified by Section 44, but his new administration will be shorn of what became known as the "dictator's law."

Prayuth will get his first taste of coalition politics in the coming days. He is a front-runner for the post of prime minister in the new government, since the coalition headed by the pro-junta Palang Pracharat party holds a narrow lead in the lower house, and also because upper house members, all picked by the junta, takes part in choosing the prime minister.

But how long the coalition he heads can last remains a question.

Political observers say the vote to elect the next prime minister will put Prayuth's discomfort on display. After all, only a few votes separate the lower house's pro-junta and anti-junta camps.

Some observers have already begun to describe the new coalition government Prayuth is likely to head as one that "will be hanging by a thread."

Even allies of the junta contend that a Prayuth-led Palang Pracharat coalition will be fortunate to hang on beyond the end of November. "The priorities," a source within Prayuth's inner circle said, "are stability and security for important dates in our political calendar -- the ASEAN summit in June, the prime minister as head of ASEAN speaking at the G-20 meeting [next month in Japan] and the second set of ASEAN summits in November."

"After that, all options are on the table; can't predict the fate of the government."

Thailand is currently the chair of ASEAN, the 10-member Southeast Asian regional bloc.

The military's top brass is also grappling with the potential fallout from a pro-junta coalition government. According to military intelligence sources, public surveys have revealed that fatigue is setting in after five years of military rule.

A Prayuth-led administration remaining in power will not bode well for the military in the long run, said one intelligence source. "The new government's choice of cabinet ministers may worsen things -- if the public thinks they are corrupt."

On Saturday, Palang Pracharat received its first dose of coalition politics. During the initial session of the National Assembly, or lower house, the party emerged with a slight victory in the vote for the speaker's position.

Democrat Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister, was chosen by 258 votes to 235. But Chuan, a former leader of the country's oldest party, was not the pro-junta bloc's initial nominee. He got the nod following a last-minute, behind-the-scenes deal, political insiders say.

It was a compromise with the Democrats designed to bring their 52 lower house members into the pro-junta fold, after the pro-junta coalition suffered a defeat during the first vote in the lower house -- 248 to 246.

"It shows that Palang Pracharat is willing to make any deal to keep its majority," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, in the northeast. "And this will continue till the new government is formed. But the unspoken issue is that a lot of money is being spent to secure support for the coalition."

Estimates vary in regard to the sums being offered to "cobra MPs," an unflattering tag for members of parliament willing to switch loyalties from one coalition to another, for a price. Political party insiders says sums ranging from 10 million baht to 40 million baht, "cash up front," are being talked about.

Currently, the pro-junta coalition has nearly 20 medium-size and small parties in its ranks -- a record for a Thai coalition government. Analysts say the camp could end up being fractious and unmanageable.

It is a contrast to Prayuth's first term as prime minister, following the military coup in May 2014, when eager-to-please lawmakers chosen by the junta rushed through bills with near unanimous votes of approval. The 250-member National Legislative Assembly had some 140 military and former military officers among its ranks.

According to Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), a Thai rights watchdog, the junta's NLA approved 412 laws. Typical was the first reading of a cybersecurity bill, which gave the regime a license to snoop on Thais. It was approved in December by 173 votes. There were no abstentions.

Financial analysts are wary of Prayuth's fresh term. A lead researcher at a Bangkok-based international financial consultancy sees political gridlock ahead.

"It is unlikely that Prayuth's coalition will have the votes every time it needs to pass a law," the researcher said. "It will be like not having a government -- a negative in the sense you don't have forward movement on important policies and reforms."

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