Thailand‘s new parliament has elected military government chief Prayuth Chan-ocha as the country’s prime minister, completing a transition from coup leader to head of a civilian government in a system seen tilted in his favour.
He comfortably exceeded the 375-vote threshold in the two houses of parliament to give him the majority needed to fend off his sole challenger, a charismatic billionaire heading up the anti-military government coalition.
Prayuth received 500 votes to 244 for Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the Future Forward Party. The military-backed Palang Pracharat Party that nominated him as their prime ministerial candidate finished second in the March 24 general election.
Prayuth’s appointment becomes official when it is endorsed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
The retired general’s victory is largely attributed to the fact that all 250 members of the upper house were hand-picked by the military.
In a further boost for Prayuth, the Election Commission changed a seat distribution formula after the March poll for the 500-member lower house, effectively reversing a projected majority for the anti-military government Democratic Front, and denying it the power to block legislation or stage no-confidence votes.
“The people are still calling for liberties. The people are still calling for justice,” Thanathorn said after the vote. “This is not the time to lose hope. Hope is still on our side. Time is still on our side. I want to thank all 244 people who love democracy for voting for me.”
Prayuth made no immediate public comment on the vote.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from Bangkok, said there was no surprise that Prayuth was elected to continue as prime minister “because the system was basically rigged in his favour”, pointing to the handpicking of the 250 senators.
“Parties in the pro-democracy bloc, which is led by the Pheu Thai party that won the most seats in the election, allege that this was a dirty campaign by the other side, that millions of dollars were offered to members of parliament to switch allegiances and vote for Pratuth to continue as prime minister.”
The former army chief staged a coup in May 2014, following months of large-scale demonstrations against the democratically elected government of Pheu Thai.
He made himself the leader of a military government and was endorsed by late King Bhumibol Adulyadej as Thailand’s new prime minister a few months later. He held the position for five years.
The military government he ruled banned political activity, suppressed debate, restricted the media and arrested dissidents until just months before the March 24 general election.
Prayuth is known for making offensive comments at times, having joked he would behead an actor for demanding an early election, and suggested that foreign women should refrain from wearing bikinis to avoid sexual assaults while holidaying in Thailand.
On several occasions, he said that too much democracy and freedom were to blame for the country’s political troubles.
Prayuth has also shown a dislike for journalists. In one notable incident that occurred the year he took power, he threw a banana peel at a group of reporters after they asked him to face the camera.
But he has tried to soften his image to win ove the people, especially in the months leading up to the election, when he was seen on television cooking and dancing.
Prayuth, who is endearingly called Uncle Tu, his nickname, by his supporters, has reportedly composed many songs asking the public to understand his good intentions and give him more time to solve the country’s problems.
Koranis Ngamsukonrattana, a member of parliament for Palang Pracharath, praised Prayuth for his character and vision.
“He’s patient and sacrificed himself so much for the country,” he said during the debate before the vote. “He’s the saviour who came in and saved the country when all hope was lost.”
Prayuth’s bid for power received a major boost late on Tuesday, when the Democrat Party – the country’s oldest – said it would join the coalition government he aimed to lead.
The decision led Democrat former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign from Parliament. He had promised during the election campaign to not support Prayuth’s bid to continue as prime minister.
The Democrats’ support also aided the chances of Palang Pracharath holding a majority in the lower house, which is necessary to pass legislation and approve budgets.
The Democrats and the Bhumjai Thai party, the fourth and fifth-place finishers in March, together hold more than 100 House seats, and reportedly had been bargaining hard with Palang Pracharath over Cabinet positions in a coalition government.
The Palang Pracharath coalition is opposed by the “Democratic Front”, comprising seven anti-military parties led by Pheu Thai, which headed the government overthrown in the 2014 coup and won the most House seats in March.