Prawit push in PPRP war could backfire

Prawit push in PPRP war could backfire

Is Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon on the road to becoming new PPRP leader? (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)
Is Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon on the road to becoming new PPRP leader? (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)

The power struggle within the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) is an attestation to how politicians are stuck in "old politics", with factions fighting one another, amassing personal gain, as well as gaining access to cabinet positions.

This is in stark contrast to the "new party" image they promoted when they launched the PPRP last year.

Such a struggle is not acceptable given that the country is still dealing with a coronavirus pandemic that has put millions out of work. The government was forced to take out one trillion baht in loans for relief packages for those hardest hit by the coronavirus' impact.

It's sad to think that at this very moment, PRRP members are obsessed with political interest, leaving disgruntled and needy people in the cold. They always insist they care for the people, but we now realise they only keep bargaining behind the scenes to maximise personal gains.

These past weeks we have witnessed political turbulence involving different factions within the main coalition party which have joined forces against Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, and three other cabinet ministers -- PPRP leader and Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana, Energy Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, and Higher Education Minister Suvit Maesincee.

The turbulence serves as a reminder to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to come good on a promise made one year ago -- a cabinet reshuffle.

Their goal is to remove the Somkid faction from power. As we know, the Somkid faction was the main force that founded the party in March last year, drawing up flagship policies for the party and was rewarded with several cabinet seats.

Several party members have complained that they've not been well taken care of, financially, by the Somkid faction even though the political norm dictates this is the task of party leaders and secretary generals.

We had this commotion before when Gen Prayut formed his cabinet last year. Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin and Industry Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit weren't satisfied with the portfolios they received; they felt because they had managed to amass more than 40 MPs in parliament, their clique deserved four or five cabinet posts.

However, they eventually got two for themselves. But it turned out that the bigger quota went to the "four super kids" (Somkid, Uttama, Sontirat and Suvit) because they had been in the same coup-installed regime. The rest of the quota had to be given to other factions in the party.

Dissatisfaction with the Somsak faction, coupled with other groups in the coalition government that are close to Gen Prawit Wongsuwon exploded with the resignation of 18 out of 34 executive members of the party. The move was to open the way for the party to have a new board within 45 days with Gen Prawit taking the role of PPRP leader, while the leader of another faction becoming the new secretary-general.

These politicians are likely hoping that pushing Gen Prawit to the front will convince Gen Prayut, who has deep respect for his "big brother" into giving them a bigger cabinet quota in an anticipated reshuffle.

It's certain that while Mr Somkid might hold onto his ministerial position, his faction may have to lose one or two cabinet posts. Gen Prayut will have to make a compromise, seeking a balance with 20 minor parties, in order to survive. He realises that the authoritarian era he relied upon before is over.

In the end, the Somkid faction may lose the game, and leave the PPRP to form a new political party for the next election. However, they will still face the same old fights of various factions competing for political gain.

However, if Gen Prawit becomes PPRP leader, this could trigger the party's decline. At 74, Gen Prawit, as deputy prime minister, is chairman of more than a dozen national committees under the current administration.

At a glance, it seems Gen Prawit is powerful, but insiders are aware that after the 2019 election Prime Minister Prayut grabbed more power for himself, while clipping the wings of his "big brother", taking away his control over the military and police forces.

But it's known that Gen Prawit has tried to grab a firm hold of the PPRP, taking advantage of the fact that it has no real leader. Although he's giving the impression he does not want the top job, it's believed that he will eventually accept the leadership post.

Gen Prawit has charisma. As big brother, he takes care of the "benefits" for all the factions. He has good a relationship with the main opposition party, Pheu Thai. This was reflected in the censure debate when the then Future Forward Party was at odds with Pheu Thai, with Future Forward alleging that Pheu Thai had struck a deal to allow Gen Prawit to emerge from the debate unscratched.

It should be noted that Pol Gen Sereepisut Temiyavet, the Seri Ruam Thai Party leader, didn't vote against Gen Prawit, while Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, a core Pheu Thai leader, is also on good terms with him.

Lest we forget, Gen Prawit also has a close relationship with the big boss at the National Anti-Corruption Commission, Pol Gen Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit.

Even though Pol Gen Watcharapol, in a show of transparency, withdrew from a probe into the expensive watches Gen Prawit claimed he borrowed from a friend, the anti-graft body gave him the benefit of the doubt, saying borrowed items, unlike loans, did not need to be declared.

Elevating Gen Prawit to become PPRP leader, in the short run, may benefit the government in the sense it might unite the party more, while his connections with some opposition leaders may be helpful. But this means that the parliamentary checks and balances mechanism becomes ceremonial without any meaning, which does not project a fair game.

However, new politics goes beyond parliament. Netizens have proved that they do a good job in scrutinising the government and politicians. Virtual politics is now more progressive.

On the other hand, we are faced with conventional politics, with leaders seeking to prolong their power.

The military regime big brother who works behind the scenes, is now stepping back into the spotlight. Gen Prayut, on the PPRP ticket, is now an "elected" prime minister, with support from 250 senators, who were handpicked by the previous regime. The current constitution will enable these senators to appoint the next prime minister.

Yet, this could be the beginning of the end for them. The PPRP under Gen Prawit will be a target for more political attacks.

The so-called big brother is beset by so many scandals that, if he is found to have committed wrongdoing, it may lead to the party's dissolution. But if independent bodies fail to hold him to account, thereby fuelling people's scepticism, it's likely the street protests that Gen Prayut had feared before the coronavirus came along will materialise.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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