Thai Ruling-Party Fissures Threaten Premier
Prayuth strains to keep rivals at bay
By: Pithaya Pookaman
Rivalries have broken out among the leaders of Thailand’s ruling Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) to the point where the fissures threaten the reign of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who in early September barely survived a third censure debate, reportedly with the aid of last-minute cash handouts to avert a coup by dissidents in his own party.
As it was, four of Prayuth’s cabinet ministers got more confidence votes in the debate than he did. This was the closest to being ousted from the premiership since Prayuth took power in a military coup that toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014.
The Prayuth government is being accused of mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic and failing to alleviate severe economic hardship. Policy shortcomings include the slow vaccine rollout, inadequate medical treatment, failure to join the international COVAX vaccine-supply scheme, overdependence on Chinese vaccines, and suspected vaccine graft while the lives of the people were at stake. So far, only about 13 percent of the 66 million population have been fully vaccinated.
Although the government could not satisfactorily rebut the opposition accusations, it was able to rely on the votes of the government lawmakers that constitute a majority in the house and some renegade MPs from the opposition bench to overcome the no-confidence vote.
Following the result of the confidence vote, Prayuth hit back with a vengeance against the coup plotters, Deputy Minister of Agriculture Capt. Thamanat Prompow and Deputy Labor Minister Narumon Pinyosinwat, both of whom were promptly dismissed from their cabinet posts. Thamanat is said to be the ringleader by virtue of his role as an influential political power broker of the ruling party despite his shady background and scandals. It is expected that their replacements would be technocrats close to Prayuth who are not members of his Palang Pracharath Party
The sacking of the two Cabinet ministers has caught PPRP leader Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon somewhat off guard. Thamanat holds a powerful position as the party’s secretary-general and commands at least 20 MPs. His departure from PPRP, perhaps to form a new political party, would substantially weaken the party and undermine the power of Prawit who, since a previous coup in 2012 has enjoyed the role of kingmaker.
Since the 2012 coup, political power has been wielded by a triumvirate consisting of Prawit, Prayuth, and Gen. Anupong Paochinda. They had been sworn brothers-in-arms and have been through thick and thin together since the military coup of 2006 which toppled the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s elder brother. Since Prawit is the oldest of the three, he acts as the big brother.
However, since the formation of the Prayuth government in 2019 after the general election in the same year, Prayuth has been maneuvering to become the sole supreme power through sidelining Prawit by not allotting him a Cabinet seat while giving the powerful Interior portfolio to Anupong. The sacking of Thamanat, Prawit’s right-hand man, from the cabinet post is yet another blow to Prawit’s prestige. To put a nail in Prawit’s coffin, Prayuth has been trying to rally party members to his side in an effort to take over PPRP in anticipation of the next general election which could be early next year.
Instead of throwing in the towel, Prawit has galvanized his PPRP allies including Thamanat and Narumon, a move that could split the party. Not to be outdone, Anupong is also taking advantage of his position as the minister of interior to elevate his clout and may form his own party to contest the upcoming election without relying on the PPRP or Prayuth, who might lose out in the power struggle.
This may also be the option contemplated by Prayuth who, in case that he cannot take over PPRP from Prawit, would head his own political party going into the next election. Prayuth is now facing a host of serious economic problems and declining support and popularity. Violent protest rallies which call for his resignation are a daily occurrence. Sensing that Prayuth’s position was not tenable due to his lackluster performance, policy shortcomings, and mounting resistance to his rule, Thamanat tried to orchestrate a parliamentary no-confidence campaign involving many influential PPRP members and vacillating micro-coalition partners and politicians in the main opposition Pheu Thai Party.
Thamanat’s aim is to replace Prayuth and reorganize a new government in which more PPRP politicians would hold cabinet posts, thus strengthening Prawit’s hand. He and his co-conspirators almost succeeded in the parliamentary coup save for the last-ditch cash handouts by Prayuth.
After Prayuth’s strong-handed approach by sacking Thamanat, the clock cannot be turned back and the stage is set for an internal power struggle within the ruling party.
From now until the opening of the next parliamentary session in November, the country will witness intense political jockeying for power within the ruling party with micro-coalition partners expected to gravitate toward Thamanat and Prawit faction within the PPRP.
Prayuth may hold a slight advantage as he can use the state budget to finance development projects in targeted election constituencies, a luxury that Thamanat does not enjoy.
The fissure within PPRP is being welcomed by the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, which could also benefit from the recent constitutional reform that reverts to the system of two election ballots, one for constituent MPs and another for the party-list or proportional MPs. In the last election, the single ballot system greatly benefited the smaller parties but limited the number of MPs of the large party like Pheu Thai.
PPRP also supported the two-ballot system as it now considers itself as a large party. But if and when PPRP fractures into small or medium parties, it may regret its decision and may seek to salvage the one-ballot system in the drafting of the organic law.
The embattled Prayuth still has trump cards up his sleeve. He can leverage his position as prime minister to attract some PPRP MPs and other coalition partners or even buy some MPs from the opposition parties. As the palace has not outwardly shown any alternative preferences for a new PM, Prayuth may still count on the support of the palace and big businesses to keep his position intact and go down in history as the longest-serving PM in Thailand.