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Thai Government May Beat Legal Threats, But Flagging Economy Looms

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, center, arrives for a photo opportunity with members of the new Thai cabinet at Government House in Bangkok, July 16, 2019.

The opposition is set to grill Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha next week for failing to recite a line in the oath of office to uphold the Constitution

Less than two months into its term, Thailand’s post-junta government is fending off a series of challenges to its very existence, including a brewing political storm over the Cabinet’s failure to recite the full oath of office.

A general election in March returned the 2014 coup leader, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, to power to widespread criticism that his military junta had manipulated the contest in its favor. Two months later the country crowned a new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has been consolidating power around the Royal Palace since the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016. The country’s GDP growth rate has meanwhile dipped to its lowest level since just after the putsch.

Analysts expect the country’s courts to save Prayut’s new administration from collapse. They say, though, that a pending fight in the lower house of Parliament next week over the botched oath could further batter its already bruised image, especially if the economy continues to flag.

FILE - People gather holding a portrait of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn along a sidewalk near the Grand Palace in Bangkok on May 3, 2019, ahead of King Vajiralongkorn's coronation which will take place from May 4 to 6.
FILE - People gather holding a portrait of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn along a sidewalk near the Grand Palace in Bangkok on May 3, 2019, ahead of King Vajiralongkorn's coronation which will take place from May 4 to 6.

Legitimacy of administration challenged

By challenging the administration’s very legitimacy, the opposition parties are “trying to wake Thai people up to the fact that this is not a democracy; this is simply the continuation of the junta by a different form,” said Paul Chambers, a political analyst and lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University.

At a swearing-in ceremony July 16, Prayut and his 35 ministers lined up before the king and pledged their allegiance. They also swore to work for the people and country but left out the last few words of the official oath, which included a vow to “uphold and observe the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand in every respect.”

The opposition says the omission raises fresh doubts about Prayut’s commitment to the rule of law. In theory it could also undo everything he and his Cabinet have done since taking the oath, including the approval of a draft 2020 budget and economic stimulus plan, if their tenure is ultimately deemed illegitimate.

Prayut has yet to explain why he and the ministers failed to recite the oath in full. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam fueled speculation that it was deliberate while deflecting questions from local reporters in the days that followed.

“One day you’ll know why we shouldn’t talk about it,” he was quoted as saying by local media, adding that it was “something no one should stick his nose into.”

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court bowed out of the brawl by claiming the matter was between Prayut and his Cabinet and the king. The Office of the Ombudsman had forwarded the original complaint to the court after deciding that the incomplete oath had breached the national charter.

Pitch Pongsawat, an assistant professor of political science at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, said he was not surprised by the decision from a court that has developed a reputation for siding with Thailand’s royalist, pro-military establishment.

“It’s unconstitutional,” he said of the swearing-in, “but [it] doesn’t matter with this regime ... Everybody knows that they will find a way out.”

Parliament to grill Prayut

The opposition is scheduled to question the prime minister over the oath in Parliament Wednesday.

Pitch said the best it can hope for is to do more damage to the government’s democratic credentials by drawing an often truculent Prayut into a political faux pas or blunder under the pressure of a public grilling.

“If they do it very well ... it will put the regime in trouble,” he said. “I think that’s what they’re aiming for.”

The day of the debate, the Constitutional Court is also set to rule on whether Prayut was even eligible to run for prime minister while still at the helm of the military government that followed the coup.

Eligibility questioned

The Constitution bars “state officials” from running for political office. A ruling against Prayut would trigger a new vote for prime minister in Parliament.

Pitch and Chambers expect the court to clear him one way or another, or draw the case out indefinitely.

Even if the government does survive, it may find it ever harder to actually govern.

Prayut’s Cabinet entered office with a razor-thin majority in the 500-seat lower house of Parliament to begin with. Having been passed over for ministry and legislative committee posts since then, a few of the coalition’s smallest parties recently announced that their votes were no longer guaranteed, leaving the parties remaining in the alliance with just under half the seats.

Pitch said, though, that the government was counting on lawmakers among the opposition parties to switch sides and make up for any losses when the time comes.

Chambers also noted that the lawmakers threatening to split from the ruling coalitions have said they were going “independent,” not necessarily joining the other side, possibly to win concessions for their continued loyalty.

“As independent MPs, they can demand more from the coalition for their vote. Actually they become more powerful,” he said.

FILE - People shop for wholesale clothing at Pratunam Market in Bangkok on March 2, 2016.
FILE - People shop for wholesale clothing at Pratunam Market in Bangkok on March 2, 2016.

Slowing economy

The one thing that just might bring the government down, Chambers said, had nothing to do with the courts, Constitution or Parliament.

“Probably the only thing that could really hurt this government is the economy,” he said. “If the economy sours increasingly ... then those people who still like Prayut are going to wash their hands [of] the government. At that point there could be another election.”

Thailand’s year-on-year GDP growth hit 2.3% in the second quarter of 2019, its slowest pace in nearly five years.

The government spokesperson’s office would not comment for this story. A spokesman for Prayut’s party, Palang Pracharath, did not reply to a request for an interview.