Several developments in recent weeks have reignited speculation over the prospect of junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha becoming a non-elected premier after the general election.
Such a possibility is unwelcome for a country which has tolerated authoritarian rule under the military regime of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) for more than three years. A “democratic ruling” following the next poll will not be completely democratic. The shadow of the military influence will remain through mechanisms invented by the current lawmakers appointed by the regime.
The resumption of Gen Prayut’s premiership would make matters worse. Thailand’s struggle to become a democratic regime will remain a pipe dream.
An effort to pave ways for this prospect is in the making. Former senator Paiboon Nititawan has announced his intention to form a new political party which will support Gen Prayut to become an outsider prime minister. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has also thrown his support behind this plan.
Gen Prayut himself seems to be more at ease to join the political class, having branded himself as a politician who used to be a soldier. Unlike politicians, he is illegible to run in the next election because he didn’t resign from the premier job within 90 days since the constitution took effect.
But he can still be nominated as a candidate for the premier job of any party during election campaigning. But Mr Paiboon has made it clear that that is not an option, insisting the NCPO leader will be backed to become an outside PM allowed by Section 272 of the constitution.
Under the section, if MPs fail to vote for a prime minister from lists of candidates nominated by political parties, a special process will be triggered to have the Senate to join the Lower House in choosing an outsider to become a PM.
Whatever kind of politicking which will be at play, the resumption of Gen Prayut to the premiership will put the country’s democracy at risk.
Under the management of the NCPO since May 2014, Thailand has become an inch closer to an authoritarian state. A return to power of Gen Prayut as an outside PM can prolong such an authoritative style of ruling.
It can threaten check-and-balance mechanisms provided by the charter. Gen Prayut will have control over the administrative and legislative branches. The Senate, whose 250 members will be handpicked by the NCPO, will unlikely become a force to scrutinise a government led by Gen Prayut.
We have already seen how such a process works in past years. The military-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has been merely a rubber stamp of the regime, passing controversial laws and annual budgets at the liking of the military government.
Thailand has also not done well under the military ruling, socially, economically and democratically.
Gen Prayut and his regime have made Thai society become more divisive than the period prior to the coup, with law enforcement being used unfairly and indiscriminately against the NCPO’s critics and politicians from the Pheu Thai camp.
Meanwhile, Gen Prayut has become an increasingly polarising figure as both opposing political camps are now turning against him, especially due to the use of his power under Section 44 to rewrite the political party law and the refusal to lift the political ban.
While reconciliation has remained the task his regime has not yet achieved, Gen Prayut resuming to the top job as an outsider premier will further derail the effort while bringing another layer of social divisiveness — this time pitting those who back him and against those who don’t.
His military regime has also been unable to prove that it can be better than elected governments, in terms of both efficiency and transparency.
Even though the economy has picked up in recent months, it has not yet brought about trickle-down effects. And while anti-corruption has been a flagship policy of the NCPO which offers itself as an alternative to politicians, a lack of transparency has become a thorn on the side of the regime.
The regime’s approvals of ballooning military budgets, especially for the procurement of Chinese submarines and tanks, are seen as unjustified and self-serving. Its several key members have also become the subjects of corruption allegations.
Gen Prayut can be tightlipped over the prospect of him being a non-elected premiere until the day the Lower House runs into the deadlock of failing to agree on a PM choice. But someone needs to tell him that his premiership should end after the election, otherwise Thailand risks being ruled by another totalitarian regime.