National unity govt like taking 2 steps back

Democrat Party veteran Bhichai Rattakul has called for a national reconciliation government that would join the military regime with the Democrat, Pheu Thai, and Bhumijaithai parties.

Even though a fresh proposal for a "national reconciliation government" floated by former Democrat Party leader Bhichai Rattakul has been sneered at by many politicians and critics, it remains a distinct possibility.

Mr Bhichai proposed the Democrat, Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai parties join hands with the military in forming a national government. He suggested Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was in a position to initiate such talks.

However, politicians from the concerned parties have slammed the suggestion as an unwelcome anachronism.

Soonruth Bunyamanee is deputy editor, Bangkok Post..

Even incumbent Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva disagreed with it, saying the next government should be formed by whichever political party wins the majority of MP seats in the upcoming general election, expected late next year.

Despite having 250 members appointed by the military regime the Senate should refrain from trying to influence the formation of the next government, he said.

Gen Prayut, known for his candour in expressing his opinions, issued a surprisingly low-key response. "I have no comment," he said. "This is not the time to talk about that."

Presumably, nobody knows whether Mr Bhichai has consulted anyone about his idea. But uncertainty over the regime's road map to democracy warrants a renewed debate over the possibility of a national unity government.

Meanwhile, scepticism about the regime's promise to hold a general election next year has resurfaced after Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon failed to confirm -- when quizzed on the subject by journalists -- whether that was still in the offing.

He said he did not know when the election would take place because it depends on the promulgation of four organic laws governing elections that are still being drafted by the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC). CDC chairman Meechai Ruchupan echoed his view, saying an election date could not be determined until the laws have taken effect.

Mr Bhichai pointed to the uncertainty surrounding the election road map to argue in favour of his proposal.

In fact, the idea is not a new one for the regime. After the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) staged the coup in 2014, similar ideas were floated as a means to address the political divide.

Anek Laothamatas, an academic who chairs the coup-installed reform panel on politics, suggested earlier that a national reconciliation government be set up to run the country during the first four years after the promulgation of the new constitution. He said this would aid reform.

But at that time the government was still under pressure on both the domestic and international front to put forward a clear democracy road map. As a result, it paid scant attention to Mr Anek's suggestion.

Before that, some members of the now-defunct, coup-installed National Reform Steering Assembly proposed a so-called "Prem model" for a new government.

This refers to moves made by the government of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda in 1980 to foster reconciliation. Gen Prem issued issued Order No.66/23 to counter the spread of communist influence in Thailand. It involved an amnesty granted to defecting students, militants and others who supported communism.

Some critics claim this has little to do with the formation of a national government. However, if we look closer into the history of events we can see interesting parallels.

Four decades ago, Gen Kriangsak Chomanan took over the premiership after staging a coup that toppled the Tanin Kraivixien administration. Three years later, Gen Kriangsak stepped down due to an ongoing oil crisis and other problems roiling parliament.

Gen Prem, the then-defence minister and army chief, was invited to step forward as the next prime minister with support from all of the key political parties at the time. His administration lasted for eight years and survived two attempted coups.

After the Prem era, the concept of a national unity government became politically abhorrent to many and was shot down every time it was proposed.

But whether we like it or not, this time the possibility cannot be ruled out. In a country subject to military control, given the regime's sweeping powers, anything can happen.

Frankly speaking, a provisional and non-partisan government could benefit the NCPO, making it a desirable course of action for the ruling junta. This is especially pertinent as the regime appears keen to prolong its grip on Thai politics for at least five years after the general election -- by any available means.

A group of 250 senators, to be selected by the NCPO as required by the new constitution, could also help the regime fulfil that goal. They could propose a motion in parliament to choose an "outsider" prime minister should a joint MP-Senate session fail to pick one from the lists submitted by the political parties.

In such an eventuality, Gen Prayut would be a very strong candidate for an outsider premier. But he would be unlikely to win support from the political party holding the most MP seats, and running a government without the support of the majority holder in the Lower House would not be an easy task. It would effectively clip the wings of Gen Prayut and strip him of his current power. He would become a normal Thai politician subject to political challenges and criticism.

Being an outsider PM is one thing. But leading a national reconciliation administration is a different kettle of fish altogether -- it would give Gen Prayut more political protection with fewer challenges to his power.

Sadly, whatever form such a broad coalition administration would take, and no matter how politically secure, it would take the country back to the way it was governed almost 40 years ago.

Moreover, it would jeopardise Thailand's 85-year history of developing democracy and put the country on par with Libya, the north African nation that set up a government of national accord in 2015 under a United Nations-led initiative to end its civil war.

Such a system may suit nations that have suffered severe political turmoil or civil war. But it isn't a good model for Thailand, which has been ruled by the military for over three years.

Thailand needs a democratically elected government, which is why a provisional national government is not welcome. It would offer privileges to certain groups, foster the patronage system and operate largely unchecked.

Unfortunately, the prospect remains on the horizon. We just haven't seen a clear picture of how it will happen.

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