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Thailand Junta Leader Named Prime Minister After Contentious Vote

BANGKOK — The leader of the junta that seized power in Thailand five years ago, Prayuth Chan-ocha, was chosen by Parliament to be prime minister after an election marred by charges of manipulation.

Mr. Prayuth, a former general who held the title of prime minister during the years of military rule, won by a combined vote of 500 to 244 in the House of Representatives and Senate.

He defeated the opposition nominee, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of the pro-democracy Future Forward Party who was elected to Parliament but suspended from his seat last month by the Constitutional Court.

Mr. Prayuth, who is not a member of Parliament, chose not to address the joint session. Mr. Thanathorn was not allowed to speak before Parliament but delivered a speech outside the chamber.

“I am ready to be the prime minister of truth,” he said. “I am ready to be the prime minister of change. And I am ready the be the prime minister to take Thailand to move forward.”

Future Forward leaders alleged that some lawmakers were offered the equivalent of $ 1 million or more to switch sides, though they did not say who made the offers. One member said he had been offered increasingly larger amounts until the figure reached nearly $ 4 million. A spokesman for the military-backed party, Palang Pracharat, did not respond to a request for comment.

Given that the military appointed all 250 members of the Senate, Parliament’s upper house, Mr. Prayuth’s thin edge in the 500-member lower house suggests he is likely to face substantial opposition there from pro-democracy forces in the coming months.

For Mr. Prayuth, an autocratic ruler who wielded absolute authority as head of the military’s National Council for Peace and Order, leading a multiparty, coalition government will be an adjustment.

To get the votes to become prime minister, he had to agree to appoint cabinet ministers from allied parties. And for the first time, he may now be held to account by an elected lower house with a sizable opposition bloc.

“This will be different than over the past five years,” said Purawich Watanasukh, a research fellow at the independent King Prajadhipok’s Institute in Bangkok. “In the military regime, he had sole power. This time, we had an election and he has to share power.”

Thailand, a constitutional monarchy, has a long history of military coups and rewritten constitutions.

The junta seized power in 2014, led by Mr. Prayuth, then a general, after months of paralyzing street protests in Bangkok by the followers of two rival political factions that are aligned today with the Democrat Party and the Pheu Thai Party.

The junta adopted an interim Constitution, which gave the head of the regime absolute power over all branches of government.

For years, Thailand was the only country in the world ruled solely by a military regime until April, when Sudan’s president was toppled in a military coup.

The Thai junta promised elections but it first drafted a new Constitution that gave the military substantial power over what would normally be seen as civilian affairs, including appointing senators, who serve five-year terms.

The military won voters’ approval of the Constitution in 2017 in a one-sided referendum in which opponents were prevented from campaigning.

The junta leaders hoped that the long-delayed lower house elections on March 24 would give them the veneer of legitimacy at home and abroad, while ultimately letting them retain power.

“The international pressure was high,” Mr. Thanathorn, the Future Forward Party leader, said in an interview. “They couldn’t continue being a military government forever.”

The result is a hybrid government that will be neither a military regime nor a democracy.

The new government’s legitimacy has already been called into question by the opposition.

Mr. Thanathorn accused the military-appointed Election Commission of manipulating the election results. He claims the commission changed seat allocations to tip control of the lower house from the pro-democracy opposition to the military’s backers.

Mr. Thanathorn, who emerged from the vote as a leader of Thailand’s democracy movement, said he and his party have been slapped with a dozen election complaints and criminal charges in an effort to muzzle them.

The Constitutional Court suspended him from taking his seat in Parliament last week after the Election Commission filed a case accusing him of not divesting his shares in a media company before a deadline.

Mr. Thanathorn denies the allegation and is fighting to be reinstated.

“Nobody really believed this election would be free and fair,” he said. “But it is way below what is acceptable, and that is why people are angry out there.”

One aim of the military in drafting the new Constitution was to reduce the power of large parties, particularly Pheu Thai, the latest iteration of a populist party that elected Thaksin Shinawatra 2001 and his sister, Yingluck, in 2011.

Both prime ministers were ousted by military coups. Accused of corruption, they now live in self-imposed exile.

Competing under the new election rules, both Pheu Thai and its rival, the Democrat Party, suffered a large decline in the number of seats they won compared with the 2011 election, the last vote deemed valid.

Two new parties, the military-backed Palang Pracharat and the pro-democracy Future Forward made strong showings. But no single party came close to winning a majority under the Election Commission’s complex and shifting formulas.

The remaining seats were divided among two dozen other parties, making it difficult for any faction to form a majority. Eleven small parties that were each allotted a single seat after a contested rule change announced that they would all back Mr. Prayuth for prime minister.

The Democrat Party announced that it would back Mr. Prayuth, prompting its former leader and a former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to resign from the seat in Parliament that he recently won. He had promised during the campaign that the party would not support the junta leader.

In seeking the legitimacy that an election could bring, the military must give up some of its power, at least on paper, said Mr. Purawich, the research fellow. When Mr. Prayuth takes office as the elected prime minister, the National Council on Peace and Order will cease to exist as the ruling body and his unilateral control of the government will end.

In the new era, Mr. Prayuth is likely to be the leader of a fragile coalition government, with numerous parties seeking to advance their interests amid the prospect of parliamentary gridlock.

One outcome could be the early dissolution of Parliament and new elections, Mr. Purawich said.

In an Opinion article published in The New York Times a day after the election, former Prime Minister Thaksin accused the junta of rigging the election and questioned whether Thai voters or other nations would see Mr. Prayuth’s government as legitimate.

“People in office are supposed to come and go while the system remains,” he wrote. “This military government is ready to destroy the system simply to keep its people in power.”

Source: NYT > World

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