KYOTO: General Prayut Chan-o-cha was overwhelmingly voted in the Thai parliament to remain as prime minister on Wednesday (Jun 5).
Prayut has ruled Thailand for the past five years following a military coup he led that overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
Though the voting session much-anticipated, the verdict was not unexpected. Prayut garnered 500 votes, 251 from the Senate and 249 from the Lower House.
Meanwhile, his rival, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a billionaire-turned-politician from the Future Forward party, received only 244 votes, and will continue his fight in parliament as the opposition.
READ: General Prayut’s dream of remaining PM dampens Thailand’s hopes of starting afresh, a commentary
The political triumph of Prayut, if anything, was carefully planned. The 2014 coup was staged so that the military could manage the royal succession against any interruption from its perceived enemies in the Shinawatra faction.
In this same mission, the military tasked itself to write a new constitution that would facilitate its entrenchment in politics.
Turning the Senate into its own instrument was a part of this preparation for Prayut's homecoming.
So, Thailand will live under the Prayut regime for another four years. What must be top priorities for the Thai government?
POLITICAL RECONCILIATION SHOULD BE TOP PRIORITY
First, the government will need to focus on political reconciliation. It is the most difficult mission given that Thai society has long been deeply polarised along ideological lines.
Beneath the Thai colour-coded politics, between the yellows and the reds, is a set of two contrasting political platforms.
On the one hand, the yellows, mostly consisting conservative traditionalists and some large quarters of the Thai middle and upper classes, continue to desire a benevolent but strong leader.
They have invested in the monarchy and the military to defend their interests for decades. Occasionally they protected democracy, but this protection is conditional and highly self-centred.
On the other hands, the reds have demanded greater access to political and economic resources. As marginalised residents, made of ordinary Thais in the middle and lower-income brackets, they have been empowered by Thaksin’s populism.
When the two Shinawatras were toppled, the reds were furious and refused to reconcile with their selfish counterparts in the capital.
How Prayut will heal the political rift depends upon how much political and economic space can be granted to the reds. To what extent Prayut would be willing to share political power to achieve a new consensus will determine the stability of the new government.
The signs are not positive. The parliamentary votes that confirmed Prayut’s renewed premiership was already considered as a slap in the face for those who went out to support Thaksin-endorsed Pheu Thai party and the emerging anti-military Future Forward party.
The Thai Raksa Chart party, which was aligned with this group, was also dissolved after it nominated Princess Ubolratana for prime minister.
TACKLE THE ECONOMY
Second, Prayut has got to address Thailand’s urgent need to rescue a faltering economy and sinking investor confidence.
As the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s growth stood at only 2.8 per cent in the first quarter from a year earlier, the weakest since 2014. Public investment, exports and tourism slowed amid rising global trade tensions and political risks at home.
Part of the problem is that Prayut’s military government failed to produce an inspiring economic policy. The military was never trained to run an economy.
The lack of political stability, possibly as a result of the government’s inability to accomplish reconciliation, could affect the legislative process and disrupt budget allocation and public spending on much-needed larger investment projects and keep investors away.
From keeping agricultural prices among poor farmers stable, supporting key manufacturing sectors, investing in major transport projects, to boosting the tourism industry, the new government treads a fine line.
It cannot afford to make a bad move when it comes to the economy. The failure could drive affected workforces onto the streets, with implications for public safety and order.
FOCUS ON ASEAN
Third, Thailand needs to pay more attention to its foreign policy. This year, Thailand chairs ASEAN.
For the longest time, Thailand has lost its interest in seriously engaging with ASEAN. Domestic political upheaval was responsible for the making of a lacklustre foreign policy.
ASEAN’s non-intervention rule also contributed towards Thailand becoming more inward looking. It is ironic that in the age of ASEAN-led economic integration and an outward-looking orientation for the group, Thailand is isolating itself.
Thailand is one of the founding fathers of ASEAN in 1967 in Bangkok. It played an active part in the promotion of this organisation, from proposing an ASEAN Free Trade Area to initiating the ASEAN Regional Forum.
It was Thailand that championed ASEAN’s approach of “constructive engagement” in engaging Myanmar in the early 1990s, eventually bringing it into the organisation.
The new Prayut government is expected to demonstrate leadership in Thailand’s year of chairing ASEAN, to advance an agenda of greater integration, and in particular, agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Thailand is scheduled to hold the ASEAN Summit in late June 2019, against the backdrop of a brewing US- China trade war and just before the G20 in Osaka. All eyes will be on Thailand then.
Prayut must not let all of us, Southeast Asians, down.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.