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Thai leader stirs the pot with a list of questions

Move seen as veiled declaration of continued political role for military

BANGKOK Alarms are sounding among democracy supporters in Thailand over six loaded questions to the public by the prime minister, a gambit many see as telegraphing the military junta's intention to retain control beyond the next general election.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the now-retired general who ousted Yingluck Shinawatra's elected government in the May 2014 coup, released the questions to reporters on Nov. 8.

The first cuts to the chase: Does Thailand need new political parties or new politicians, and can existing parties and politicians push through reforms and the national strategy?

The Southeast Asian country is expected to hold its first post-coup general election next November.

The following three questions address the junta's role in the nation's political future: Does the National Council for Peace and Order have the right to support any political party? Do the people see a bright future from what the NCPO has achieved? Is it appropriate to compare how past governments were formed with how the current government came about?

The NCPO consists mainly of military officials. It currently serves as the country's top decision-making body, according to a Thai expert.

While the prime minister denies any political motive in raising the questions, political figures see them as designed to justify the junta's hold on the levers of power. Some also speculate that the questions aim to plant seeds of doubt regarding existing parties and politicians to draw public support for the NCPO to either form a new party or back a party for the upcoming election.

These views seem to be only reinforced by the final two questions: Did past Thai administrations demonstrate an acceptable degree of competence, good governance and national development? And why have political parties and politicians come out now to discredit the NCPO with distortions of fact?

THUMB ON THE SCALES? Outraged politicians have hit back, criticizing Prayuth in local media. The prime minister is engaging in an exercise in self-aggrandizement while slinging mud to undermine opponents, a senior official in the conservative Democrat Party said.

The questions are unfair and shameful, said a senior official in Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party.

But the fact is that whatever administration results from the 2018 election will have to deal with a powerful remnant of the current military government. Under the new constitution signed in April, the junta has the power to control the 250-member upper house during a five-year transitional period.

The upper house will check the power of an elected 500-member lower house whose makeup will determine the government. If Prayuth's questions are indeed a ploy to ensure the junta's future political influence, as some allege, then the military will not be satisfied with a mere obstructionist role, an observer said.

The new constitution includes a voting system that makes it difficult for a single party to win a lower house majority. This opens the door for the junta to retain control even after a free election -- the NCPO can form its own party or back a proxy, and this party can become a member of the ruling coalition expected to form after the next election.

An air of acceptance of the military's outsize political influence has enveloped the country, much of it stemming from disillusionment with elected politicians who had brought about unrest in the past.

The Thai political landscape has been split into warring camps since Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra came to power as prime minister after his party swept the general election in 2001.

One is the Thaksin faction, whose power base lies in rural areas in the north and northeast. The other comprises the traditional ruling class, such as military personnel and civil servants, as well as the urban middle class.

The 2014 coup put a lid on the conflict. Some citizens welcome the peace and stability the junta has brought, and foreign corporations making direct investments in Thailand likely prefer calm to chaos.

But this peace and stability did not come from a reconciliation by the factions. Whether the junta seeks to remain at the center of Thai politics -- and if so, if this is because it still has issues to resolve or simply wants to cling to power -- Prayuth's questions have aroused hope in some and suspicion in others.

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