Junta leader awaiting ‘invitation’ from parties; expects to make his decision before Feb 8.

JUNTA LEADER Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday vowed he would not step down as prime minister while stating clearly that if he was to return as the PM, it would be through normal means – as a candidate on a party’s list.

Circumstances now clearly point to General Prayut topping the PM list of the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party, but the coup leader yesterday remained officially non-committal, repeating that he had not been contacted by any party.

However, Prayut seemed to keep his options open, saying: “I am waiting for invitations. And I need time to study their policy proposals and their practicality. If I am to join them, I have to see their policies.”

He said he expected to make his decision by February 8, the date when the Election Commission (EC) requires PM-candidate lists to be submitted by parties. He was much clearer on two other matters – that he will not give up his premiership during the election period, and he will not return to power as an “outsider” PM.

“Don’t press me now,” Prayut said. “Who will do this if I quit? I will stay no matter what. The law doesn’t say I have to leave. I can stay until the new government is in place.”

If he were to return as the premier, Prayut said, “I have to be on the list. Let’s just say that. Otherwise, they’ll say I’m an outsider [PM]. It’ll just get too chaotic if I am not on the list.”

With the election fast approaching and the strong possibility of Prayut keeping his hold on power after the polls, critics are calling for the PM to step down to ensure a fair election.

If he stays on during the lead-up to polling day and before the new government takes office, political observers say the regime will use its absolute power and current status to manipulate the poll.

They said the government could conveniently use the government’s major “Pracharat” scheme, which shares the same keyword as the pro-junta party “Phalang Pracharat”, to gain popularity over other parties.

This criticism was especially severe when the government handed out cash to low-income earners as a New Year gift.

Also, mobile Cabinet meetings have been held in different provinces, allowing Prayut to meet with voters and respond to their demands.

State resources should not be exploited for the gains of a particular party, critics said.

In a worst-case scenario, given that the junta enjoys absolute power allowed by Article 44, political scientists have voiced concern that Prayut could use his absoute power to do anything – including cancelling the election altogether.

Attasit Pankaew, a political scientist from Thammasat University, warned yesterday that these criticisms would put much pressure on Prayut unless he steps down now.

“Of course, if Prayut is on the PM-candidate list and refuses to give up power, he has to bear the criticism that he is abusing state power for his own political gain,” Attasit said.

Questions about whether the election is free and fair will haunt Prayut throughout the campaign, if he continued in power, Attasit said.

And after the election, if the pro-junta camp comes out on top, and Prayut remained premier, questions would be raised about his victory, he added.

If Prayut insists on keeping his position and power throughout the electoral campaign, the expert advised that he exercise his power discreetly to avoid public criticism that would make his premiership after the election difficult.

In a related development, the four ministers who occupy key positions in the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat yesterday resigned from their positions after weeks of criticism. Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana, Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee, and PM’s |Office Minister Kobsak Pootrakool bowed out.

Uttama is the Phalang Pracharat leader while the other three are party executives.

Prayut said he will not reshuffle the Cabinet but only assign their duties to other Cabinet members.