Leaders of Thailand’s major political parties on Wednesday turned down a meeting organized by the junta, which sought to bring more than 100 parties together to discuss their platforms ahead of the first elections due after almost five years of military rule.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the junta chief who led a military coup in May 2014 that toppled the civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra amid bloody street protests, had called the meeting for Friday. In addition, Prayuth said he would discuss the possibility of lifting a ban on political gatherings leading up to nationwide polls planned for February 2019.
Earlier this year, police charged seven pro-democracy activists with sedition and defying a ban on public gatherings for leading a January demonstration that drew about 100 people in downtown Bangkok. They allegedly violated a junta order prohibiting public political gatherings of five or more people.
Prayuth’s invitation ran into resistance from at least four major parties whose leaders claimed he was seeking to extend the junta’s grip on power through at least one proxy, the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP), which announced that it would nominate him for prime minister.
The Pheu Thai Party, the Thai Raksa Chart Party (a splinter of Pheu Thai), the Future Forward Party and the Democrat Party are expected to gain seats in the upcoming parliament election scheduled for February. The election appears to be moving forward after a series of delays by Prayuth, who, early on during his government’s rule, promised to steer Thailand back on a path to democracy.
“The Palang Pracharat Party has different views on many things,” said Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, one of Thailand’s largest political parties. “It consolidates the power to run the nation by taking members of parliament from other parties. That is not the democratic way.”
“I think it isn’t constructive politics or a reform. So I don’t see a need to talk,” added Abhisit, who served as prime minister before Yingluck.
MPs change parties
About 40 leaders of Pheu Thai Party, which had been led by Yingluck and previously by her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, have defected to the PPP. Both Yingluck and Thaksin lost control of government through military coups and are living in exile outside of Thailand.
“The migration of MPs shows that there might be some groups maneuvering in support of Prayuth or the military,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University.
Meanwhile, Sudarat Keyuraphan, a Pheu Thai leader, said the junta lacked legitimacy to conduct an election. She reiterated that her party would not attend the meeting.
“The government conducts popular subsidy projects called Pracharat that are linked to the political party with the same name,” Sudarat told reporters on Wednesday. “It is wrong in principle, therefore it’s useless to meet and discuss.”
On Tuesday, Prayuth spoke to reporters about his plans to meet with political leaders.
“My goal is to support political parties that seek to move the country forward,” Prayuth said. “So other parties should tell us their political strategies.
“If they don’t want to talk, I don’t care. If they don’t join the meeting, it means they don’t want an election,” he said. “They don’t respect the rules, how can we be together? How can they set up a government?”
Analysts expect Prayuth to benefit from a senate under the control of the junta if he were to run for office. He has not announced if he wants to be nominated to serve as prime minister.
A constitution approved through a 2016 referendum added 100 seats to the senate and allows the military to appoint all 250 senators. All senators have the power to help members of the 500-seat National Legislative Assembly appoint a new prime minister, meaning Prayuth would need the support of only 126 MPs to give him 376 votes and retain his power.
Despite concerns about the pro-junta PPP, the Democrat Party has to choose between joining it or forming a coalition with other parties if it has any chance of stopping Prayuth, according to Uchane Cheangsan, a political science professor at Walailuck University.
“If the party wants to get rid of Prayuth, members must isolate him and force him to find support from lesser parties instead, but it is unlikely to happen,” Uchane told BenarNews.