Censure debate is govt's toughest test yet
The forthcoming no-confidence debate is set to be the toughest challenge posed by the opposition bloc against the Prayut Chan-o-cha government.
The debate, the third of its kind since the government was formed in 2019, is scheduled for Tuesday-Friday, with the votes to be cast on Saturday. It targets Gen Prayut and five cabinet ministers, namely Anutin Charnvirakul, deputy prime minister and public health minister; Saksayam Chidchob, transport minister; Chalermchai Sri-on, agriculture and cooperatives minister; Suchart Chomklin, labour minister; and Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn, digital economy and society minister.
No further proof is needed to convince the public of the government's abysmal performance in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the soaring number of transmissions has exceeded 1 million cases. The number of accumulated deaths surpassed 10,000 in the five months after the Thong Lor cluster that began in April. Lockdown measures hurt many businesses, with thousands of people losing their jobs. The grim situation sent Gen Prayut's popularity down the drain.
The opposition is right for singling out the government's dependence on AstraZeneca, which resulted in vaccine shortages. The government should not have been complacent; it should have diversified vaccine sources and secured mRNA jabs so the country would not be in such a deep crisis.
Needless to say, holding back the inoculation drive has caused damage. But more importantly, foul play in vaccine distribution was like rubbing salt into the wound. The procurement of the Sinovac vaccine, with questions about its efficacy in fighting the the Delta variant, has frustrated the public.
This predicament occurred even though the Prayut government has all the powers granted by the Emergency Decree.
As the opposition rolls its sleeves up for the debate, it has accused the prime minister of being hungry for power. It said he has turned a blind eye to "vaccine profiteering" and condemned the government's failure to reduce the defence budget as more money is needed to ease people's suffering.
The debate comes at a time when street politics is heating up too. Pro-democracy groups have staged a series of demonstrations calling for the prime minister's resignation.
The war on social media against the government is also intensifying. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra appears on Clubhouse often to take aim at the government. Moreover, Pheu Thai kicked off a #PrayutGetOut campaign on change.org.
The opposition appears to have the political advantage now, but can it really knock out the government? Under the current parliamentary system, with the coalition government controlling a majority of votes, the chances of beating it are very slim. Not to mention the fact that there are wide cracks in the opposition bloc, particularly the feud between Pheu Thai and the Move Forward Party (MFP), which may hinder its efforts.
It should be noted that the two opposition parties have still not been able to improve ties that went sour during a previous debate when the MFP accused Pheu Thai of colluding with the ruling Palang Pracharath Party for sparing Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and Deputy Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow from the grilling.
The MFP and its pro-democracy supporters have suspicions, believing that Pheu Thai has a plan to make friends with the PPRP, and later form a partnership. They accuse Thaksin, the de facto leader of Pheu Thai, of focusing on his own interests, with no intention of real structural reform.
They say this partnership would just be a political game.
The MFP is upset with the Pheu Thai's decision to allocate money left over from the House scrutiny process to the central fund -- the act is likened to giving the government a blank cheque as the central fund can be used with practically no examination by the House. Their differences over the charter rewrite, with the Pheu Thai sharing the stance of the PPRP on the two-ballot system that favours bigger parties, have fuelled the MFP's suspicions.
As the conflicts escalate between the two parties, Phumtham Wechayachai, a core Pheu Thai figure, challenged the MFP's leader to a debate. Thaksin had to step in and warn both parties to look at the bigger picture and that the goal of democratisation can never be met without compromise.
The government stands to benefit if the opposition parties cannot bury the hatchet.
Besides, it applied a political tactic by pushing the censure debate voting to Saturday out of hope that, by that time, lower transmission numbers would come out in its favour. Over the past few days, the number of new Covid-19 cases has shrunk from 20,000 to about 17,000 per day. The government has also pinned its hopes on the number of vaccine doses being delivered later in the year. In other words, vaccines are its trump card.
It could be said that the infection rate is stable as there are no new surges, and the vaccination campaign is smooth as the country has a sufficient number of vaccine doses so restrictive Covid-19 measures can be eased. The Prayut government may be under less pressure and could stay until the end of its term before preparing for new elections.
Such a scenario is possible with one major condition: no new coronavirus wave.
Such a scenario does not necessarily mean a total loss for the opposition, however. In fact, having the debate now is crucial as public trust in the government has eroded substantially. If the opposition performs well in the debate, making use of solid information to support its claims, it will be able to accumulate political gains and reap the rewards.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.