Pandemonium reigned in parliament yesterday after the vote to choose a new Prime Minister descended into farce.
After the House had failed to choose a Prime Minister from among the candidates declared before the election, the appointed Senate was constitutionally required to join the House in voting for any candidate, including persons who had not stood for election. Predictably, the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the 2014 coup d’état Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha was nominated.
The initial tally seemed to show that Gen Prayut had won convincingly without having to stand or run for office. But results were thrown into confusion when many lawmakers claimed that their votes had in fact been cast in favour of a cardboard cut-out of the general which has plagued Thai politics since the beginning of 2018.
The problem began just before Children’s Day in January 2018 when the Prime Minister placed a cardboard cut-out of himself in front of the media and told them to direct their questions to the replica before walking off. It was suggested by the Prime Minister’s handlers that this was a light-hearted joke and not intended to show contempt for the media.
The stunt certainly raised a few laughs with the story being featured in news bulletins around the world. But critics complained that the Prime Minister’s gaffe had simply made Thailand an international laughing-stock. Again.
However a number of media professionals said that they were ‘more comfortable’ with the cardboard replica. ‘It doesn’t threaten to kill us,’ said one reporter, ‘or throw things at us.’ Many said that they got as much sense out of the cardboard copy as they did from the real thing, and with more politeness.
‘Pretend Prayut’ then took on a life of his own. Pranksters and government critics took to carrying round life-size cardboard cut-outs of the PM, displaying them at events and acting as if the real Prayut was present.
Government House was initially undecided about how to deal with the situation. On the one hand, Pretend Prayut was earning free publicity for the premier, who had recently announced that he had stopped being a soldier who held political office and was now a politician who still wore uniforms and ordered everyone about.
But when Pretend Prayut became the target for some barbed commentary (he was, for example, entered for a TV game show and brought the house down with his idiotic answers, an idea that was quickly copied by almost every other TV game show), the PM’s Office decided enough was enough.
A criminal defamation charge was filed against one activist known as ‘Char Bellyflop’ who raised money for communities negatively affected by government development projects. He toured the length and breadth of the country with Pretend Prayut, showing him just how much happiness had been brought to the people.
The case was fought all the way up to the Supreme Court, with the defence arguing that any defamation had been directed not at the Prime Minister, who had brought the charge, but at Pretend Prayut, who didn’t seem to mind. In a split ‘not guilty’ verdict that left legal scholars scratching their heads, the court found that (a) defamation had been committed, but (b) the PM was not the defamed party, and (c) Pretend Prayut was recognized by the Court as a juristic person.
With his new legal status, Pretend Prayut went on to forge a stellar career that quickly outshone that of the real Prayut. He presided at hi so weddings, he played golf with generals and captains of industry and he congratulated successful athletes, beauty queens and school marching bands, basking in their reflected glory. He was even rumoured to have been involved in an affair with a cardboard replica of a well-known actress, with a miniature cardboard baby produced as proof of the liaison.
Pretend Prayut also had political ambitions and when, after many delays, the election campaign finally got underway, he appeared at the rallies of a number of parties, though never actually became a member of any.
He favoured the plethora of new parties with names like the We Love Tu Party, and the He Says He’s Not A Soldier And I Believe Him Party, whose founder members all give addresses in military bases. None of them won any constituency seats, but under the new complicated vote-counting system where no idiot’s vote is thrown away, these parties together controlled a sizeable block of party list MPs. This was enough to stymie the efforts of longer-standing parties to get their nominees elected as PM.
In the furore that greeted the vote of the joint sitting of parliament, the Chair of the Constitution Drafting Committee Meechai Ruchuphan was asked if a cardboard cut-out was legally qualified to be Prime Minister. After consulting other leading ideologues, Meechai said that the situation was unforeseen but the constitution only required that Pretend Prayut be Thai. Which he clearly was.
Pretend Prayut was consequently declared Prime Minister and was immediately packed off to a meeting of ASEAN to meet his foreign counterparts. Thailand’s standing in the international community is reported to have risen significantly as a result.