Crisis of faith is reaching a crescendo
The harsh words by MC Chulcherm Yugala, a staunch royalist, against the Prayut Chan-o-cha government, denouncing its poor handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, have stunned political observers and supporters of the prime minister. Given his senior royal status, the prince's criticism has triggered wild speculation over a possible new prime minister endorsed by the palace.
In his FB post, MC Chulcherm went so far as to say he would even consider joining the pro-democracy movement after its high-profile series of street protests, should its leadership drop their anti-monarchy stance.
Such blatant criticism, unprecedented for the prince, comes at a time when public confidence in the incumbent PM is nosediving, with some even suggesting that if Gen Prayut stays on, the government may crumble, with long lasting political damage not only to the country but to the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).
It could be argued that a palace-endorsed PM is the last hope for the right-wing conservative camp in their efforts to maintain power. But having an outside PM rise to power via non-parliamentary means -- once an accepted solution to political crises -- would be an anachronism in this day and age.
Besides, we no longer have a non-partisan person with a high level of baramee. And any such option would be rejected by a new, politically conscious generation discontented with Thailand's old-style politics. With high social media skills, these young people are ready to confront the conservative leaders who might be able to form a government but, with such strong resistance, cannot rule.
Today's Covid situation, with soaring infection cases threatening the public health sector, is a curse for the Prayut government whose misguided policies, like the sudden closure of construction camps without supporting measures, have worsened the situation. The number of daily infections jumped from about 3,000 cases in early July to about 17,000 this week. There are concerns that figure may soar to 30,000 a day, before the containment measures have time to bear fruit in the next month or two.
Earlier this week, Gen Prayut expressed hope the pandemic will ease in 4-6 weeks with the vaccination campaign up and running more smoothly now. But soaring cases have cast doubt on that prediction and may even see Thailand number among the world's five most afflicted nations in the coming days.
Under the circumstance, Gen Prayut's supporters must think hard whether to maintain their support or "remove a malign tumor to save to save their [political] life". What is certain is that if the pandemic is prolonged, it will be hard for the government to extend lockdown measures for another three months as recommended by some health experts, as hardship would trigger public anger that could snowball into mass protests to oust the leader. Should that be the case, the PPRP would sink, with no chance of a political comeback. The coalition's future is uncertain with key partners like the Bhumjaithai and the Democrats already said to be preparing an exit strategy. Both parties have complained about Gen Prayut's centralised administrative style that has left them out in the cold in terms of having a say in pandemic control.
But as Gen Prayut refuses to exit, resign as PM or dissolve parliament and call a snap election, there will be no political change, nor a new government. The embattled army-chief-turned-premier repeats time and again that he he's not going anywhere and will fight on, and he's prepared to do it alone should the coalition partners desert him.
Any changes to Thai politics must be made under democratic rules, and a palace-endorsed PM is not to be accepted.
However, if Gen Prayut should become disheartened and decide to call it quits, here are some possible scenarios.
A new government would need to be formed, and parliament will have to go back to the list of PM candidates proposed after the 2019 poll by each party, ie Anutin Charnvirakul, by Bhumjaithai; Abhisit Vejjajiva, by the Democrats; and Chaikasem Nitisiri, by Pheu Thai. Previously, Pheu Thai had enlisted Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan and Chadchart Sittipunt, but both have since gone their own separate ways.
However, it's unlikely that Mr Anutin, Mr Abhisit and Mr Chaikasem will contest the top position. Mr Anutin, with several MPs in his camp, and his strong financial resources, may have a technical advantage over his two rivals, but this is not his time, given the bruises he has suffered over the Covid-19 debacle. Bhumjaithai will likely want to wait, as it would be in the party's interests to let time pass and memories dim before an election is held.
If the lower house and the Senate cannot reach an agreement over Gen Prayut's replacement, they must seek an outsider to lead a so-called "national government" comprising all the parties, as stipulated by Section 272 of the charter. The successful candidate needs two-third of the votes.
But it's highly unlikely the opposition would join the national government bandwagon. On the contrary, the opposition, especially Pheu Thai, knows full well that they stand to reap huge gains in a snap election, since the pandemic, and subsequent economic downturn has cost the government public support. In short, the doors are closed for a national government and a palace endorsed PM and the countdown to the next election has begun.
In fact, Pheu Thai is particularly ready. It has rebranded fugitive ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, now known as Tony Woodsome, who meets his fans in Clubhouse, the audio-based social networking app, every week, raising his profile while discrediting the government.
Thaksin announced that he would definitely return to Thailand next year when pressure against Prayut may have forced his exit.
This is, however, not the first time Thaksin has talked about returning to Thailand. During the 2010 red-shirt protests that turned into riots, he promised that should the first bullet be fired at the protesters, he would immediately come back and side with his followers. Eleven years on, he remains abroad while former aides who served in the Thai Rak Thai cabinet serve jail sentences for graft.
Thaksin's repeated remarks are like a broken record. We all know nothing will happen as upon returning to Thailand, jail would be his first stop without an amnesty that would only reignite conflict. His statement is just a political tactic, aimed at preventing the flight of party members being courted by Bhumjaithai and PPRP. Besides, Thaksin remains the all-time poster boy for the Pheu Thai which is now focused on charter amendment in the hope of reintroducing the two-ballot system that sealed its previous marches to power.
More importantly, Pheu Thai's core leaders believe the party can win the next election by a landslide, beating all rivals, ie Bhumjaithai, the Democrats, and the PPRP to form a majority. The party is also confident that as a big election winner, it could pressure the Senate to stay away from the PM appointment, leaving the matter to the lower house.
In short, the opposition will not play the national government game. But they will try to extract the full benefits from a no-confidence motion that is to take place in a matter of weeks, by rubbing salt into the government's wounds regarding its poor performance in handling the outbreak. The debate is likely to be a crucial moment in this saga, with the opposition keen to boot the prime minister and his brothers in arms out of power once and for all.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.