- Other power brokers could be in the running to lead the country, including royal privy councillor and long-time technocrat Ampon Kittiampon
Post-election political machinations in Thailand put on hold for the kingdom’s once-in-a-generation coronation ceremony are stirring once again, but observers say they remain none the wiser on who will emerge prime minister following March’s disputed poll.
Junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, prime minister since a 2014 coup, is still odds-on to keep his job in a civilian government set to take power in the coming weeks.
However, the messy outcome of the March 24 vote, which failed to give the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party a clear advantage, means other power brokers could be in the running to lead the country, analysts say.
Among them is royal privy councillor and long-time technocrat Ampon Kittiampon, a little known personality outside Thai political circles.
He is viewed as a middle-of-the-road choice who could heal the decades-old stand-off between the pro-military establishment and the rural-backed movement linked to the powerful Shinawatra clan.
James Buchanan, a Thai politics observer with City University of Hong Kong, said the lack of clarity on Prayuth’s future – his continuation as prime minister was previously viewed as a mere formality – suggested the outcome is not scripted as most observers believe it to be.
Among various players likely to be jostling to put loyalists in power in a nominally democratic Thailand is the constitutional monarch King Maha Vajiralongkorn himself, Buchanan said.
In the latest development on Tuesday, Prayuth’s junta announced who it had appointed to the 250-seat senate. Almost all the appointees are openly aligned with the pro-military establishment. Some 101 are former senior police or military officers.
The 250 senators along with 500 elected MPs each have a vote on who becomes prime minister. With the senate stacked with junta loyalists, the pundits’ bet is that whoever is nominated by the pro-military faction – Prayuth or someone else – will get the top political job.
Palang Pracharath has 115 seats, and with support from 11 other parties each holding one seat, the pro-military faction has 126 elected MPs. Coupled with the 250 senators, the bloc will have a simple majority of 376 in the 750-seat bicameral National Assembly to anoint their nominee as premier.
This is despite the anti-military faction, who call themselves the Democratic Front, having 245 elected MPs – just six seats short of a simple majority in the lower house. That bloc is linked to the Shinawatra political family behind the country’s deep political split.
Buchanan said the emergence of Ampon as a “third option” reflects a “chronic desire in Thailand to start again whenever a crisis – real or manufactured – reaches boiling point”.
However, “this is part of the problem rather than the solution to the country’s never-ending cycle of political turmoil”, he said.
Rumour of Ampon’s rise follows the publication of commentaries in the Thai-language press in recent weeks on his merits as a leader.
A Nikkei Asian Review report on Sunday quoted an unnamed Western diplomat as saying that Ampon – who served as cabinet secretary for three different governments – is being touted as an “option if there is political gridlock and the next parliament is unable to choose a prime minister from existing nominees”.
The report said sources within the Thai establishment viewed a recent call for unity by the monarch as “furthering the case for Ampon to head a caretaker government” and prevent prolonging the impasse.
He has served as chairman of the board of directors at Thai Airways and the kingdom’s central bank.
Over the last 12 months, he has also been appointed to the king’s Privy Council and given a seat on the executive board of the Crown Property Bureau, the body that manages the monarchy’s multibillion-dollar assets.
Political analyst Yutthaporn Issarachai said a key reason for the speculation surrounding Ampon is the long lead time between the March 24 poll and its final outcome.
The election commission deliberately delayed the release of full results until last week, citing a need for nationwide calm during the May 4-6 coronation of King Vajiralongkorn.
The consensus among independent analysts like Buchanan and Yutthaporn is that an “outsider prime minister” like Ampon would not bode well for the kingdom’s democratic transition.
“It is not a good sign … because it means the electoral mechanisms have failed,” said Anusorn Unno, from Thammasat University’s sociology and anthropology department. “If we need an outsider PM, why hold an election?”
Despite these murmurs, Prayuth’s camp have not let on about any anxiety over his future. Among the 250 senators named on Tuesday are ardent loyalists including his brother Preecha Chan-ocha, also a former top military general.
Also included are Sitthawat Wongsuwan, brother of Prayuth’s No 2, Prawit, as well as Chalermchai Krue-ngam and Som Jatusripitak – both siblings of two senior Prayuth lieutenants.
“What’s remarkable is that Prayuth and his faction seem to be stubbornly digging in and trying to hold on to power,” Buchanan said. “This should give us pause to stop and perhaps reconsider the power dynamics at the moment. Despite what some analysts say, it could be that things are still quite fluid and nobody is firmly in control.”
Another name being bandied about as a possible surprise contender for prime minister is Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the medium-sized Bhumjaithai Party.
Commentators believe that if his party – which has 51 seats in the lower house – is asked to join the pro-military faction, the billionaire politician may ask to be made prime minister as a quid pro quo.
On Monday he reportedly said he would not back any faction that does not have a simple majority in the lower house.
The anti-military bloc, led by the Puea Thai party, the political vehicle of the Shinawatras, say their leader Sudarat Keyuraphan should be made prime minister on account of the fact that the party, with 136 MPs, has the lion’s share of parliamentary seats.