Can the PM survive Year of the Tiger?

Can the PM survive Year of the Tiger?

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attends a groundbreaking ceremony for a monument in Bangkok on Dec 5. AFP
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attends a groundbreaking ceremony for a monument in Bangkok on Dec 5. AFP

Enter the Year of the Tiger. But the start of the year does not augur well for the coalition government and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Even though the prime minister tried to console himself by playing the old hit song, Ya Yom Pae (Never Give Up), from his smartphone for his colleagues at a meeting on Thursday, and urged them to remain strong like him, it won't help much.

That came one day after the ruling Palang Pracharath Party sacked its controversial secretary-general -- Capt Thamanat Prompow -- and 20 other MPs for making a demand deemed unacceptable to the party.

The demand as conveyed by the party's deputy leader, Paiboon Nititawan, that the party agree to a restructuring, may be deceptive.

The real demand was a ministerial post for Capt Thamanat, a former deputy agriculture minister who was sacked for plotting to dethrone or shame the prime minister at the end of the censure debate in September.

Sources said Capt Thamanat wants the agriculture minister post, which is currently held by Chalermchai Sri-on, secretary-general of the Democrat Party, in exchange for the education minister post, currently held by Trinuch Thienthong of the PPRP, reportedly to use the resources of this ministry to curry favour among the grassroots before the next election.

Two cabinet posts have been left vacant since the dismissal of Capt Thamanat and then deputy labour minister Narumon Pinyosinwat following the censure debate last year.

Capt Thamanat's main obstacle is the prime minister, who recently announced that he will not reshuffle his cabinet nor dissolve the House.

The expulsion of Capt Thamanat and his gang from the PPRP does not mean that this will automatically strengthen the opposition's position in parliament because they are likely to join the Setthakit Thai Party, a spare-parts party founded by Gen Wit Dhephasdin na Ayudhya, a right-hand man of Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, the PPRP leader.

Hence, the expulsion of the gang is likened to a separation of a married couple, not a divorce.

Instead of strengthening the opposition, the separation will give more freedom for Capt Thamanat to manoeuvre, scheme or plot against the prime minister more independently as a freelancer.

Gen Prawit, the real handler of Capt Thamanat, can now claims the maverick power broker is beyond his control.

In the wake of this latest change in the ruling party, compounded by rising prices among almost all food items, blamed on the mishandling of the pig and African Swine Fever (ASF) problem, the government's stability is shaken to the core.

The prime minister's popularity is fading rapidly as well, and not even the most biased pollsters can help shore up his image in the eyes of the public.

The success of medical personnel in containing the spread of the Omicron variant may help the government and the prime minister.

But the issue of immediate concern for the people in general is the rising cost of living and how they can cope with it at a time when the country's economy is slowing.

The heavy spending in the fight against the Covid scourge and the various economic stimulus packages rolled out one after the other by the government to increase consumer purchasing power are having an impact on the funds allocated to each ministry.

One clear example is the tens of thousands of forest rangers who are instrumental in the protecting the country's forests and wildlife will be laid off, or, if they are lucky, have their chicken's-feed salary of less than 10,000 baht per month cut by 25% because the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment can no longer afford to employ them due to substantial budgetary cuts.

The real battlefield in determining the future of the government is parliament, and the prospect of winning here does not bode well.

The first House meeting of the year since the New Year collapsed due to a lack of quorum.

This trend will carry on as opposition parties plan to increase pressure in parliament to force the prime minister's hand to dissolve the House.

Government-sponsored financial bills may be harder to get through parliament if meetings cannot be held due to a lack of quorum.

With a razor-thin majority in the House, this may prove to be a difficult task that requires full support from government MPs.

However, there is one important bill that is yet to be passed -- the one concerning the two-ballot electoral system, which will benefit big parties like the Pheu Thai which hope for a landslide victory at the next general election. This can be a government trump card for prolonging its stay in office for several more months until August when its term is due to expire.

The political winds of change will come this year, sooner or later, and one thing that will most likely fade away is Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

His political career now appears to be beyond salvaging.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

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