PM will not be quitting anytime soon
The high-profile showdown between Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his challenger Capt Thamanat Prompow -- who is the right-hand man of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon -- has sparked speculation over a deepening rift between Gen Prayut and his brother in arms.
Gen Prayut booted out Capt Thamanat, deputy agriculture minister, from his cabinet after a number of incidents, particularly the attempt to sabotage the PM's leadership by spreading rumours that he had lost royal backing.
Capt Thamanat was also accused of trying to divide the prime minister and his brothers, while he aimed at the interior portfolio, sidelining Gen Anupong Paojinda. He also joined hands with minion politicians against Gen Prayut during the recent censure debate.
Although Capt Thamanat was eventually dismissed from the cabinet, Gen Prawit did not allow him to quit the Palang Pracharath Party's (PPRP) secretary-general position.
The question is: Will such party conflicts lessen the chance of the PPRP's comeback after the next election?
After bouts of political turbulence, Gen Prayut, who managed to tighten his grip on the PPRP, has made it clear he will not be throwing in the towel.
With the Covid-19 situation becoming more stable, the prime minister has regained the confidence that his flagging popularity can rebound. Now he seems ready for the challenge of the next election and, beyond that, the possibility of running the country for another term.
If successful, Gen Prayut, who has been in power since the 2014 coup, would outdo former prime minister the late Prem Tinsulanonda who ran the country for eight years and five months before he voluntarily stepped down.
But there is a big hurdle ahead. The current charter limits a prime minister's maximum stay in power to eight years. Gen Prayut, who was in office on Aug 24, 2014, following the coup has run the country for seven years and one month already. It means by Aug 24 next year, he would have run the country for eight years, meeting the limit.
His political opponents will find a chance to challenge his legitimacy, pressure him to respect the supreme law and leave. They will likely file a case with the Constitutional Court.
The eight-year limit stipulated in the 2017 charter is to prevent a political leader from dominating politics for too long so they can abuse the system, as was seen during the era of Thaksin Shinawatra who ran Thailand for almost two terms until he was ousted in the 2006 coup staged by Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin.
But it's likely Gen Prayut will take advantage of legal loopholes.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the government's legal guru, already ruled out the possibility the prime minister would face the eight-year limit. In an interview with the media, Mr Wissanu insisted that Gen Prayut would be exempted from the charter rule since the counting should start after the supreme law took effect on April 2018, not the day Gen Prayut took office following the 2014 coup.
Udom Rath-amrit, spokesman of now-defunct Charter Drafting Committee (CDC), went even further. In his opinion, the counting should start on the day Gen Prayut was royally endorsed on June 6, 2019 -- the first day of his second term.
With such a twist, it suggests Gen Prayut could go forward with his political ambitions. Not to mention the solid support from the military-appointed Constitutional Court, and the 250-strong Senate that would enable him to prolong his stay until June 6, 2027, altogether 13 years. This would make him the second longest-serving premier in Thailand's political history, after Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongram.
But politics is unpredictable. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu's rationale may not be applicable today or in the future. It depends very much on Gen Prayut, who made the famous statement "give me a little time", when he took power in 2014, whether he thinks 7-8 years in power is enough.
But we should also look at unfavourable public sentiment against the general-turned-politician as indicated in opinion polls conducted earlier this month by Nida. About 58% of the respondents said Gen Prayut should call it quits while 20% still want him to carry on.
It could be said many are tired of ongoing conflicts which are derived from the 2014 putsch. Apart from a short peaceful period as a result of draconian martial law, the past several years have seen political discontent simmering, especially as rounds of street protests erupted. If Gen Prayut lingers on in power, without an amendment of the controversial 2017 charter, the country would be trapped in a worsening political crisis.
But Gen Prayut pretends not to see the problems that he is part of. After booting out Capt Thamanat, he has freshened up, going on several inspection trips to PPRP-controlled areas as if to say he's ready for another political bout.
It's evident that Capt Thamanat's dismissal agitated Gen Prawit -- the ex-agriculture minister is his right-hand man. With support from Gen Prawit, Capt Thamanat, who was recently elected PPRP secretary-general, is a rising star. He has a number of MPs in his control, and due to his manoeuvering, he has managed to draw quite a few politicians from small parties into the PPRP. And with Capt Thamanat overseeing by-elections, PPRP candidates emerge as poll winners.
As Gen Prawit is keeping Capt Thamanat by his side, many think he is engaged in a power game and that the brothers in arms cannot see eye to eye. The recent separate field trips, one to Ayutthaya and the other to Phetchaburi, on the same day gave the impression that the two are "wrestling". Several dozen PPRP politicians turned up in force to receive Gen Prawit during the visit, as if to leave the prime minister out in the cold.
But the fact is Gen Prayut and his big brother are almost indivisible. Being almost one and the same, they will never fall apart.
Now they just separate their roles for bigger political gains especially amid the possibility of a power disruption. In the event of the accidental downfall of Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit stands ready to take over as the first DPM and leader of the PPRP who has connection with every party including Pheu Thai.
PPRP members are well aware that they should tie their political future to Gen Prawit, who is the party's genuine leader if they are to run in the next elections.
Gen Prayut may find it easier to run the country from now, especially as the pro-democracy movement has become exhausted. And opposition parties cannot do much but wait until parliament reconvenes in May next year.
Meanwhile, a more stable Covid-19 situation due to the increased availability of vaccines will substantially help ease the pressure on his administration. The raising of the debt ceiling from 60% of GDP to 70% also means better cash flow for the administration.
But as said politics can be unpredictable. Anything could happen. Gen Prayut's popularity could severely plummet or the charter court may not rule in his favour regarding the eight-year limit.
Under such a scenario, Gen Prawit would get a political windfall and this might give Capt Thamanat another political chance.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.