Will Prayut call a snap election soon?
With vaccination success in sight, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha could be planning to take political advantage, dissolving parliament and calling a snap election.
This week the prime minister announced a speedy reopening of the country, within 120 days or by mid-October, following the mass vaccination programme that kickstarted on June 7. Despite some hiccups that have delayed delivery, the PM is fully confident vaccines will be available soon, with major arrivals from AstraZeneca planned for this month and later, which would enable the country to achieve herd immunity once 70% of the population is jabbed.
With such an announcement, Gen Prayut is looking ahead for a chance to make political gains, with a high possibility that he'll call for the House to be dissolved by the middle of next year. Despite a terse statement in a recent parliamentary meeting that he would not be leaving anytime soon, the PM does not need to keep his vow to complete his term, which is set to end in March 2023, in one year and nine months. Why would he when he can cash in on vaccine success? Besides, it's evident that the "politicians market" -- where MPs seek to move to a party that gives them better deals -- has been bustling for quite some time. This signals early elections. Let's look at some crucial factors that show an early House dissolution cannot be ruled out:
A successful vaccine rollout that makes reopening the country early possible, whereby tourist provinces such as Phuket, Chiang Mai, Pattaya could resume the once powerful engine that drove the economy. Furthermore, the Prayut government now has 500 billion baht in loans for stimulus and relief packages.
And when the 2022 fiscal year takes effect this October, the government will have more than 3.1 trillion in total in its coffers. With such an enormous amount of money, the government's power rises too.
More importantly, with the same old election rule regarding a PM's appointment intact, the PPRP still has the upper hand after the next election as it has 250 military appointed senators in its clutches. As we have seen, the senators have performed as pawns for Gen Prayut and his government. In a recent parliamentary meeting Gen Prayut blatantly asked the senators to raise their hands if they did not trust him. None dared to.
Even if the charter amendment process gains momentum, with parties in both the coalition and opposition camps pushing for their respective agendas, aiming at changes to the political system and the stripping down of Senate power (which the PPRP has opted out of), it's expected that the process, set to start on June 22-23, will face hurdles without support from the senators who have insisted that they would rather maintain the status quo.
Additionally, even though Gen Prayut's popularity seems to have diminished, he has secured support from those in the upper social echelons who still regard the former army chief as the "best choice" under current circumstances. This is because the PM still has control over the men in uniform and bureaucrats at a time when pro-democracy elements seem to be lying low, readjusting their strategies following a series of iron-fisted measures like the application of Section 112.
Not to mention that within the PPRP under Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, no one has risen to challenge the prime minister. In what seemed to be a ceremonial party assembly, Gen Prawit managed to put his man, Thamanat Prompow, who has 10-20 politicians under his wings, in the party's secretary general position, kicking out Anucha Nakasai. Capt Thamanat -- no matter how scandalous and controversial he is -- has gained Gen Prawit's trust as he has proved he can deliver in various situations.
But, most of all, there are two deciding factors if the government and the PPRP will push for a quick House dissolution. The first factor involves the PPRP's bid to abolish Section 45 on primary voting in its charter amendment attempts.
Primary voting was introduced in the 2017 charter with an aim to prevent the dominance of wealthy sponsors or party leaders in any particular party by requiring those wishing to run in an election, to gain approval from party members and party branches as a prerequisite. As a political newcomer, with fewer registered party branches compared to other parties with deeper roots, primary voting is the PPRP's weak spot.
The second factor is whether the PPRP can restore the two-ballot method, like that of the 1997 charter, which benefits big parties more. This clause, which will be debated in a joint sitting of MPs and senators next week, sees both the Pheu Thai Party and PPRP reaping common benefits.
The charter amendment, if approved in the first reading on June 23, will be considered by a House panel for 30-45 days before going back to the House for a second reading in early August. It is to be wrapped up by early September, followed by the amendment of relevant laws, ie the election of MPs; and the political parties legislation. All will be finalised no later than the middle of next year.
Under the current circumstances, it would seem as though every party is gearing up for a snap general election. The Pheu Thai Party, in particular, remains hopeful, with help from former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who, after a period of hibernation, has reappeared. But the PPRP and Gen Prayut, with the senators faithfully on their side, still have the advantage.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.