Axe-wielding may be too late to save PM

Axe-wielding may be too late to save PM

Prime Minister Prayut Cha-o-cha enjoys a joke with fellow coalition members in 2019, in the aftermath of their election victory earlier in the year. (Photo by Government House)
Prime Minister Prayut Cha-o-cha enjoys a joke with fellow coalition members in 2019, in the aftermath of their election victory earlier in the year. (Photo by Government House)

The infighting in the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) that resulted in the purge of Capt Thamanat Prompow and 20 other politicians in his pocket has shaken the Prayut Chan-o-cha coalition government's stability.

The outcome of the squabble has caused, for this administration, an unprecedented gust of political turbulence that has seen rumours swirling that the embattled prime minister could dissolve the House some time before the no-confidence session in May.

The Thamanat faction is thought to be joining the Setthakij Thai Party (Thai Economic Party) which retains links with PPRP leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon.

There are reports that Gen Wit Devahastin na Ayudhya, a close aide of Gen Prawit, is about to leave a senior position at the PPRP to assume the post of Setthakij Thai's leader while Capt Thamanat is to take the up role of deputy leader.

It is common knowledge that Capt Thamanat, due to his political manoeuvring, has won Gen Prawit's trust.

However, he fell out of favour with the prime minister after attempting to topple him in a censure debate last year while bargaining for the interior ministry portfolio.

In a lightning bolt of retribution, Gen Prayut kicked him out of his cabinet, along with Narumon Pinyosinwat, who was then deputy labour minister.

It's believed Capt Thamanat's departure from the PPRP was planned by Gen Prawit in the hope of appeasing belligerent factions within the ruling party.

However, the fact is that Capt Thamanat had wanted to quit the party since his dismissal from the cabinet but was stopped by Gen Prawit.

For the PPRP, the last straw came with the losses in two by-elections in Chumphon and Songkhla when some politicians close to the PM pointed the finger at Capt Thamanat's controversial campaign speech which they thought was offensive to southerners.

Like it or not, Capt Thamanat played a big part in securing Gen Prayut's power, especially his behind-the-scenes efforts to secure support from the minor parties that enabled the PPRP to form a government after the 2019 election.

At the same time, there are reports about growing problems between Gen Prayut and his "brother in arms".

Due to Gen Prawit's negative image, relating to the luxury wristwatches controversy, the prime minister had to lay low. But at the same time, he has been tasked with all the affairs within the PPRP, with Capt Thamanat by his side as his right-hand man.

There are reports that Gen Prawit was extremely upset when the prime minister booted Capt Thamanat from the cabinet and had felt that his wings had been clipped.

Word is that the latest power game, with Capt Thamanat moving to a new party, is designed to make Gen Prayut realise the real situation and agree to a compromise, welcoming back Capt Thamanat -- or his nominee -- to the cabinet.

With 21 votes in their pocket, the group is believed to have bargaining power. There are reports that two cabinet seats may go to Gen Wit and Apichai Techa-ubon who is said to be leaving the Democrats to take up the position of secretary-general of the Setthakij Thai Party. It's said Mr Apichai was disappointed with the Democrats after missing out on the party's cabinet quota.

Gen Prawit reportedly informed the party in a recent meeting about the fate of Capt Thamanat's faction, to ensure that the group does not join the opposition.

This is a big test for Gen Prayut. Should he refuse to play along, he risks losing power. Even if he disagrees, and decides to maintain the status quo, he will have a difficult time in parliament. Bills proposed by the government could easily be shot down. And if that happens, the prime minister will expect his fate to be sealed in a no-confidence motion.

This may explain Gen Prawit's involvement with the Setthakij Thai Party. As well as being a close ally of the PPRP, it will serve as a reserve party should the PPRP be dissolved.

Both Gen Prayut and the PPRP are politically vulnerable given that they require 238 House votes to push motions through. With 268 votes, the government were already facing a hard slog.

Should Thamanat's faction shift its position, the government will have to run the country with only a paper-thin majority. Lest we forget, Capt Thamanat has strong ties with politicians in minor parties.

His bargaining power would be heightened should he manage to convince them to join his camp. This is a golden opportunity for minor parties to demand a cabinet seat or other rewards.

While the prime minister is facing internal conflict, the opposition is rolling up its sleeves, preparing for a censure debate in May that it hopes will be the final nail in the government's coffin, thrusting its failures into the light. The prime minister can hardly be confident that he will still be in control following this political test.

Under such circumstances, it's believed that Gen Prayut will have to compromise, by opening the door to Setthakij Thai and reshuffling the cabinet ahead of the censure debate to ensure that he can stay on until the Apec meeting later this year and even seek another term after the next election.

Dissolving the House now would not be a wise move for Gen Prayut and the PPRP. Due to the internal rows, and the government's poor performance that has been blamed by many as the prime cause of the economic downturn and higher cost of living, the PPRP cannot win as many seats as it did last time. At best, it would be a medium-sized party.

Even though Gen Prayut will try to see out his tenure, time is not on his side, Running the country under these circumstances will not be a walk in the park. The PPRP is at risk of breaking apart, with members seeking a new home, especially with rivals, such as Pheu Thai, and with allies looking to become big winners in future elections. Infighting over the past three years has shown the PPRP is nothing but an ad hoc interest group, rather than a political institution, as Gen Prayut's popularity has continued to nosedive.

Gen Prayut would be wise to map out his exit strategy and step down at a time of his own choosing. If not, in August, he will need to be ready to confront his next hurdle as his tenure runs beyond the official eight-year limit as stipulated in the 2017 charter. Should he allow that to happen, things might turn ugly. And that would be a real crisis -- not for him, but for the whole country.

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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