Thai junta chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha officially began his first term as an elected prime minister on Tuesday by receiving the king’s blessing five days after a parliamentary majority picked him to lead the next government.
Dressed in a white uniform, Prayuth, who has served as PM since leading a military coup in 2014, knelt before a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn at his office in Bangkok, as he ceremoniously accepted a royal decoration following the monarch’s endorsement.
“His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn has a royal command to announce that whereas the parliament voted on June 5, 2019, for Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha to become prime minister with more than half of combined houses, therefore [HM the King] appointed Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha prime minister in accordance with Section 158 of the constitution,” an announcement in the Royal Gazette stated.
After the ceremony, Prayuth, 65, addressed the Thai people on national television.
“I affirm that I will dedicate myself to public service with honesty and integrity in pursuit of the greater good of the country and the people of Thailand,” the prime minister said.
Although Prayuth was sworn into office, it was unclear when his new cabinet would be finalized. He had said previously that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the official name of the junta – and the draconian Article 44 would end when he and the new cabinet were sworn in before the king.
Article 44, which was adopted as part of the 2014 interim constitution that brought his military government to power, gave Prayuth absolute authority to give orders he deemed necessary for the country’s good, such as clamping down on free speech and making arrests without warrants.
Prayuth remains as prime minister even though he did not run for a parliamentary seat in the March 24 general election because the constitution allows an outsider to assume the office.
It also stipulates that 250 senators can join 500 house representatives to select a new prime minister, a rule change seen by the opposition and analysts as skewed in favour of the junta because the senators were hand-picked by the NCPO.
Last week, Prayuth received 500 votes from the senate and lower house as the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party (PPP) and a coalition of 18 other parties carried far more than the 376 votes needed to form a new government.
Smaller coalition parties were upset over reports that the PPP sought to keep ministerial seats promised as part of a deal to secure their votes, or that Prayuth would have the final say on who served in his cabinet.
“There will be discussions. Suitability will be considered and compromises must be made. The benefits of the country and people will be the priority,” he told reporters, according to the Bangkok Post.
The Democrat Party agreed to join the new ruling coalition in exchange for cabinet positions including agriculture. One of the party’s former leaders, ex-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, quit it and resigned from parliament because he refused to vote for Prayuth.
In addition, the Bhumjaithai Party teamed up with the coalition after being assured it would have a lead role in the public health portfolio to push for medical marijuana legalization.
Only one other candidate, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of Future Forward Party, was nominated for prime minister. He received 244 votes from a pro-democracy coalition despite being suspended from the parliamentary seat he won, pending a court’s decision on a complaint that he had violated electoral law by holding shares in a media company.
Thanathorn claimed that the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra opposition was “robbed of victory.”
Thaksin, a former prime minister now in exile, was booted out in a military coup in 2006. A similar fate befell his younger sister, Yingluck, who was ousted in a similar coup led by Prayuth, the then-army chief, in 2014.
As he begins his second term but first as an elected PM, Prayuth, who is accustomed to ruling without opposition, may face a hard time dealing with elected politicians who might not follow his command, according to an analyst.
The hand-picked senators who helped drive up Prayuth’s vote count in the race for prime minister will have no parts in passing laws, budget or no-confidence debate, said Anusorn Unno, dean of sociology and anthropology at Thammasat University in Bangkok.
While Prayuth’s lower house coalition collected a slim majority of 254 to 246 votes, the house speaker, a member of one of the ruling coalition parties, abstains from voting, Anusorn pointed out.
“Prayuth cannot act the same way because now there is an opposition. He can no longer refuse to answer questions, unlike during the time of the NCPO,” Anusorn told BenarNews.