BANGKOK — Thailand’s new parliament voted late Wednesday to elect junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister after a months-long post-election period of backdoor deals and maneuvers, beating out a popular opposition Thai politician and strengthening the military’s grip over the kingdom.
Prayuth’s premiership extends the general’s rule over Thailand. It’s a position he’s held since a 2014 coup ousted a democratically elected government, and it cements the kingdom’s tilt away from its democratic promise despite opposition forces performing well in long-awaited March elections. Prayuth will now be the country’s civilian prime minister, leading a fractured coalition led by the army-linked Palang Pracharat Party.
The vote, which concluded late Wednesday after a lengthy debate about both candidates’ qualifications, will effectively weaken the power of the Thai legislature and open another confused and messy chapter in the country’s politics. Prayuth secured almost 500 votes in favor, compared to 244 votes for his competitor, with just three abstentions.
“Thailand will be a country with a parliament, but it won’t be a democratic parliament,” said Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent political analyst. The House of Representatives and Senate, he added, established as checks on power and as legislative bodies, will be “meaningless.”
Thailand held elections in March, the first opportunity for Thais to vote in eight years and the first since a 2014 coup established a junta with Prayuth at its helm. The long-anticipated elections were seen by many Thais as a chance to pick parties they believed would address systemic issues such as inequality and the rising cost of living, but were widely considered as rigged in favor of the junta.
Ahead of the vote, a new party, the Future Forward Party, and its charismatic billionaire leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, stole the hearts of many young people who finally thought that they had found a party that spoke to them. The Pheu Thai party, linked to the movement started by Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allies have constantly dominated at the polls but have been repeatedly strong-armed out of power, also continued to attract a large following.
But early election results were inconclusive, showing almost equal support for the pro-army party that sought to effectively extend the junta’s rule, and parties such as Pheu Thai and Future Forward, which ran on a platform of ending the military’s dominance. Official results, finally released in May, showed the “democratic front” did not have the majority of lawmakers necessary to vote in their choice of leader.
The Palang Pracharat Party was not the clear winner either, taking 116 seats of the 500 in the lower house. The junta, however, appointed a 250-strong Senate, packed full of former generals, which unanimously voted for Prayuth as prime minister and gave the general a clear leg up.
On Tuesday, ahead of the vote, the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest, chose to align itself with the junta chief, backtracking on a pre-election promise. The party’s former leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, also a former prime minister, resigned from the party in protest Wednesday.
This block was enough to boost Prayuth over Thanathorn, the fresh-faced competitor who has faced a slew of legal charges since he chose to directly take on the junta’s rule and run on a platform calling for its end. On Wednesday, speaking at a news conference, Thanathorn said he would be the prime minister to “move Thailand forward and respect the principles of democracy.”
“We must make the members of parliament the representatives of the voters, not the reflection of illegitimate power, of the military and of the capitalists,” he said, promising to take on the widening income gap, declining standards of education and inefficient government spending.
Prayuth did not show up to the parliamentary meeting Wednesday, saying there was “no need” for him to outline his vision.
The post-election uncertainty was by design, analysts say, as electoral rules were changed under the ruling junta to prevent Thaksin-linked parties from dominating elections as they’ve done since the early 2000s.
But since the March election, newly elected members of parliament started reporting monetary offers from “brokers” in return for their support for Prayuth. According to these new lawmakers, those offers ranged from $640,000 to $3.8 million.
Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, an elected lawmaker from Bangkok representing the Future Forward Party who was famous for cycling to visit voters during the election campaign, said he was among those who received an offer. He was contacted by an acquaintance and offered the equivalent of almost $1 million. When he rejected the offer, it was raised repeatedly until it reached $3.8 million last week.
“I thought, what is the value of democracy? Democracy is priceless. The trust from voters is definitely valued more than 120 million [Thai baht],” he said. He voted for his party’s leader, Thanathorn, as prime minister.
Analysts widely predict that Prayuth’s new civilian government will be unstable and unsustainable without a clear mandate from the people.
“[The new government] has not gained support from major political parties that have won the votes of the people,” Sirote said. “So it won’t have the support of people outside the parliament.”