The new PM faced with mission impossible
It may seem like a contradiction but the new prime minister named by the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) should act, and be seen to act, independently of the coup leaders or else he will lose his credibility from the outset.
The paradox is clear for everyone to see: the new premier can't be seen to have been chosen because he will do the military's bidding. He must be able to tell the public that he is in a position to pick his own Cabinet and that he won't hesitate to challenge the CDR (who will rename themselves the "National Security Council") if they should interfere with the government or try to exercise their influence behind the scenes.
The new prime minister and his 35-member Cabinet will in fact be placed in a very delicate, and peculiar, position indeed. The coup leaders will have to pick someone they can trust to serve as the new premier, but the person they choose can't be seen as being submissive to the leaders who staged last week's coup to oust Thaksin Shinawatra. If the interim leader were to be seen as kow-towing to the CDR, he would be labelled as one of their henchmen and would immediately lose any ability to govern.
Legitimacy to govern, or more precisely the lack of it, is of course the key conundrum. The coup leaders may describe their mission as "democratic reform" all they like but the truth remains that when they decided to send the tanks out to oust a democratically elected head of government, they knew they were resorting to undemocratic means. Dancing around the dilemma by calling it "one-step back, two steps forwards" does not hide the fact that the coup was illegitimate. Hence one of the CDR's first public statements after Thaksin was a pledge to name a civilian premier and an interim government within two weeks.
The new premier will have to handle the issue of legitimacy with great care as well. He will be caught between a rock and a hard place - a man without a public mandate, but with an unenviable mission to complete. The coup-leaders aren't supposed to interfere with his decisions, but they can't afford to let him fail either. Any public perception that the CDR picked the wrong man would defeat the whole purpose of the highly dangerous exercise in the first place.
The new premier will be selected because, among other things, he is considered to be a democratic reformer. However, by accepting the nomination of the coup-makers, he cannot rightfully claim to be championing the cause of democracy either. Even if he were to try to ignore that embarrassing situation by embarking on a platform of major political reform, his attempts - however well-intended - would be restricted by the fact that the main task would not be under his direct jurisdiction. And that is: the drafting of a new constitution. This responsibility will rest with a 200-member Constitution Drafting Committee, to be screened by a People's Assembly made up of about 2,000 people from all walks of life.
The new premier will have to win the hearts and minds of all sectors of society in the way he chooses to run the daily affairs of the nation. His integrity and competence will be vital in gaining the support of the intelligentsia and the middle-class. On the one hand, he can't let the rural poor think he is taking away all "government-sponsored goodies", which have made the Thaksin regime so popular.
On the one hand, it would be highly dangerous for the interim premier to play the role of a "populist leader". That is not only considered politically incorrect after the coup - it has also, rightly or wrongly, become a sure way to political suicide for anyone to be vaguely seen as journeying down that road.
If staging a coup was a dangerous game at best, taking over from the coup-makers is an even more challenging task. And the daunting task is just beginning.