Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thailand coup, the promises and the roadmap

If things go according to the junta's roadmap, one line of speculation is that a new general election could be held in May, 2015. But then, that depends on whether the first of three phases, from now until August, goes "according to plan" or not.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)'s chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, faces the dilemma of having to produce a specific timeframe to return the country to the democratic process while maintaining sufficient flexibility to change course should the situation on the ground fail to proceed as planned.

Public statements from various military leaders in the past few days point to a clearer three-phase transition. After the first stage of "reconciliation", a national legislative assembly is expected to be set up in August, with about 200 members voted in by representatives from all walks of life that could number a few thousand from around the country.

With a legislative body in place, an interim Cabinet will be formed in September along with a Reform Council, which will work hand in hand with the legislative body to pass laws and regulations that are expected to be proposed by the council, which could number around 200 to 250 members.

It is also quite likely that a constitution-drafting council, numbering 30-35 members, will be set up to draw up a new charter that will reflect the consensus of the Reform Council. The charter writers may be drawn from the national legislative assembly, the Cabinet and the Reform Council to push through a new set of rules that will attempt to make politics more inclusive and broad-based than did the previous ground rules.

The most important question remains: What role will the coup-makers play in this second phase?

General Prayuth has hinted that the NCPO will remain a powerful body even after the new government is formed, working in parallel with the new Cabinet to ensure a "smooth transition".

But then, a new scenario has just emerged that puts Prayuth in the prime minister's seat to lead the new government.

Timing is everything. The coup leader is due to retire on September 30, together with the supreme commander, Air Force chief and Navy commander-in-chief, all of whom are part of the top brass running the country right now. Questions have already been raised as to whether Prayuth will somehow get his term extended - or whether he will step down a few days before the retirement deadline to assume the top political post as prime minister, thereby ensuring his grip on power all the way until elections next year.

Air Force chief Prachin Chantong, also deputy NCPO leader, did not shoot down a question by a reporter earlier this week over whether Prayuth would take over the premiership himself. He said: "We will have to listen to the opinion of all parties concerned, including the media."

If that's the case, most of the generals at the top of NCPO who are due to retire at the same time would most likely be given portfolios in the new Cabinet. That probably explains why one speculative list has most of Prayuth's deputies tipped as Cabinet members running all the major ministries, all the way from Defence, Communications and Commerce to Interior.

But a Cabinet dominated by generals would raise too many questions about the leader's real intentions and could cast doubt on Prayuth's declaration earlier, to the effect that he hadn't staged this coup to usurp power.

The challenge would be for him to design a system whereby the NCPO maintains the necessary clout while at the same time a civilian government could work with a certain degree of credibility, the legislative body could work independently, and the Reform Council be able make important changes to society without having to be given the green light from the generals.

How Phase 2 works and how all the initiatives launched by the NCPO in Phase 1 are translated into real actions - which will also determine whether national reconciliation is more than just talk - will decide whether Phase 3 can arrive on time: in 10 months to one year from the launch date of Phase 2 in August.

After all, General Prayuth has gone public with this pledge: "I didn't stage this coup to seek power. I won't stay long." Bangkok Post


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