From without and within, Thai PM faces challenges to his power

Subel Rai Bhandari and Nontarat Phaicharoen
From without and within, Thai PM faces challenges to his power Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan (left) listens to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha during a no-confidence debate at the parliament in Bangkok, July 19, 2022.
Sakchai Lalit/AP

“No time to die,” a pro-government Facebook page blared this week, as Thailand’s parliament prepared to debate Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s fitness for office, with a series of posts resembling posters for the James Bond film but featuring images of the current cabinet.

Prayuth – “Agent 008” – “will not be killed,” the post predicted with tongue-in-cheek humor to lighten the mood on the eve of a four-day censure debate against the prime minister and members of his cabinet.

The former junta chief is expected to survive the fourth no-confidence vote in three years on Saturday, but polls and analysts say his political future is in doubt as the country heads to a general election that must take place in the next 10 months.

“If they won’t die in the parliament, they will die in the election,” said Chonlanan Srikaew, the leader of the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, referring to Prayuth and 10 of his ministers.

Eight years after he spearheaded a military coup, Prayuth, 68, a retired army chief, has remained the country’s leader but faces challenges to his power, including from within his coalition.

During the week, he also fended off the opposition’s accusations of corruption and economic mismanagement as he took part in parliamentary debating ahead of the no-confidence vote.

While he courted their ongoing support earlier in July, Prayuth expressed his wish to serve a second elected term as he assured supporters that his economic programs would start bearing fruit in two years.

Et tu, Prawit?

But Prawit Wongsuwan, a deputy prime minister and head of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party, may want to replace Prayuth so that it stands a better chance of winning the next general election, which must take place no later than May 2023, according to political insiders.

On the second day of the debate, Prawit was asked if he knew about the 2014 coup that toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

“I did not stage the coup; this man did,” he replied, pointing his finger at Prayuth, who sat next to him.

The prime minister raised his hand and smiled. The remark drew laughter from some government lawmakers but opposition members kept mum.

“The prime minister was the only one involved in the coup. Not me, nor [Interior Minister] Gen. Anupong [Paochinda],” Prawit claimed. “I have to set this straight because I had no clue of the coup. It’s rubbish to talk about the 3P alliance.”

Prayuth, Prawit and Anupong (Pok) are known in Thai politics as the “3Ps” – all former army chiefs who were involved in the coup. 

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha answers questions during a no-confidence debate at the Parliament in Bangkok, July 19, 2022. [Sakchai Lalit/AP]

Since last year, Thai media have reported about the souring relationship among the three, especially between Prayuth and Prawit, who does not have any portfolio despite serving as deputy prime minister.

In public, the two ex-generals maintain they have a good relationship.

“Only death shall make us three part,” Prawit said last year after Prayuth faced his third no-confidence vote in September. 

Later, Prawit’s right-hand man, Thamanat Prompow, who served as secretary-general of the ruling party, was booted out after it emerged that he had allegedly tried to secure the no-confidence vote against Prayuth.

Thammanat and 15 other MPs left the coalition this month, saying they would vote against Prayuth. Still, that may not be enough to oust Prayuth who has reached out to another “Group of 16,” a loose coalition of micro-parties with only one or two MPs, according to local media.

Prayuth has lost some of his strength, said Thannapat Jarernpanit, a politics professor at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University. 

“His popularity inside and outside the party is dipping, and the relationship among the coalition factions are volatile,” he said.

The opposition has taken the opportunity to attack Prayuth and his government as “a complete failure,” unable to tackle the country’s economy – which was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic – as well as public health and public borrowing, among other issues.

“If Prayuth were the brand name of a product, that brand name would be rejected by the people,” Chonlanan, a leading opposition politician, said on Tuesday, the first day of the parliament debate.

He accused the prime minister of lacking leadership, being incompetent, abusing power and lacking moral legitimacy – allegations Prayuth dismissed as an “old script.”

Meanwhile, Prayuth defended his tenure, saying the economy was in ruins because of previous governments, adding that he helped the nation’s tourist industry recover and had provided financial assistance to the public during the pandemic.

An image of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, mocked up with a James Bond theme, appeared on a pro-government Facebook page, July 18, 2022. [Priang News/Facebook]

Prayuth is likely to survive on Saturday as no one has lost in the more than 40 no-confidence votes since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, according to Tulsathit Taptim, a political commentator on Thai PBS.

Analysts noted that Prayuth’s coalition has 253 members – more than the opposition’s 224. Some ministers could lose their jobs after the vote and amid media reports that Prayuth likely will reshuffle his cabinet, analysts said.

While opposition parties are unlikely to succeed in unseating the prime minister on Saturday, the debate likely will help them in the next election, said Piyapong Phimphaluk, a political researcher at Chiang Mai University.

Threat from outside the party

During the debate, a small group of protesters gathered in front of Parliament to put pressure on lawmakers ahead of the vote.

They are part of the youth-led pro-democracy street protests that started in July 2020 and, at their peak, drew up to 20,000 who demanded Prayuth’s resignation and constitutional and monarchy reforms.

While the demonstrations died down recently as the government charged more than 200 protest leaders with royal defamation and sedition charges, analysts said anti-government feelings remain.

“The movement was dispersed and suppressed through a combination of water cannon, legal instruments, intimidation and coercion – but its discontents and grievances are simmering under the lid of repression,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, wrote on Friday in the Bangkok Post.

“Thailand seems headed for an inevitable reckoning in the medium term.”

Anti-government protesters block the road as a part of their “car mob” demonstrations in Bangkok, Aug. 29, 2021. [Anuthep Cheysakron/AP]

Ahead of the vote, Prayuth has performed poorly in recent public opinion polls.

He finished fourth, with only 11.68 percent support of potential voters in the upcoming general election, according to a June survey by the Bangkok-based National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA). In a March survey by the same institute, Prayuth finished third.

Among the parties, opposition Pheu Thai was the top choice for 36 percent of respondents, the NIDA poll found last month, while Prayuth’s army-linked Palang Pracharat finished fourth with 7 percent votes.

The unpopularity was evident when Prayuth’s chosen candidate lost the May election for Bangkok governor and his party won two of 50 seats in the metropolitan council.

“The election of the Bangkok governor has changed the value and priorities of political leaders dramatically,” Thannapat told BenarNews.

“It could even force the ruling party to move Prayuth to other roles such as the strategist and not someone in the spotlight, to attract the voters.” 

Prayuth also is likely to face a legal hurdle as opposition parties said they planned to file a petition to the Constitutional Court about him serving the maximum term of eight years. They allege that would end on Aug. 24 because he was appointed prime minister in 2014 by an unelected military-dominated legislature after the coup he led.

Prayuth’s administration, meanwhile, said his term started in 2019 after the last general election. 

According to Thannapat, the Palang Pracharat Party, in the wake of its poor showing in the Bangkok polls and with a general election looming next year, will need someone on the national stage “with a good profile, acceptable to wider society, and most importantly not an old, retired soldier.” 

Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.


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