Clock ticks for Prayut and his new party
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha finally broke his silence over his political future when he signed up with Ruam Thai Sang Chart, known as the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, on Monday.
As he made his UTN debut at a Bangkok event, the former junta head declared his aspirations to be the party's candidate for the PM.
He said he wanted to "carry on as the country remains trapped with a myriad of serious problems," ie inequality, instability, land issues, rising living costs, injustices and corruption. He likewise stressed that Thailand needs to be strengthened to cope with global challenges.
But Gen Prayut's speech raised some eyebrows because, during his past eight years in power, he merely sat on such problems rather than doing his best to solve them.
If Gen Prayut could again make it to parliament and is named PM, his term will also be limited to two years as stipulated by the 2017 charter. How could he solve such problems in such a short time?
Some observers say Gen Prayut feels the need to keep going because he dares not to step down or because he is addicted to power.
By joining UTN, Gen Prayut officially cut ties with the Palang Pracharath party (PPRP), but some believe that there is no real separation and that it is part of a political tactic.
Weerakorn Kamprakorb, Nakhon Sawan veteran MP -- who just left PPRP for Bhumjaithai (BJT) -- noted that UTN is just a "new PPRP under Gen Prayut" while Gen Prawit Wongsuwon stays with old PPRP. Both parties strictly remain on the conservative spectrum.
Despite a large crowd on Monday flashing placards of support, Gen Prayut's new political start was kind of lacklustre, given the absence of A-listers from the PPRP or the Democrats as widely speculated.
Only a few old faces like Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, Seksakol Atthawong, and Trairong Suwannakhiri were by his side, together with Suchart Chomklin, former PPRP executive, who has made his loyalty to Gen Prayut clear.
Mr Suchart, with 15-20 MPs in his camp, is assigned to take care of constituencies in the central, western and eastern regions.
Absent from Monday's event were key politicians of the Sam Mitr group under PPRP deputy leader Somsak Thepsutin who has 20 MPs in the pocket.
The PPRP's Pak Nam faction, with five MPs under the Asvahame family, announced publicly it would either stay with the old party or move to the BJT. Only a few from the PPRP's southern camp were seen at the event.
Without big names from the Democrat Party, the PPRP, and the Suthep Thaugsuban party, the UTN's hope of being a major winner, with over 100 MPs, is a distant dream.
Monday's lacklustre event suggests that it may even get fewer than 25 MPs, the minimum requirement for being able to submit to parliament a candidate for prime minister.
Some optimists may believe the UTN still has time to attract some more MPs before the election, which is scheduled for May 7 if the parliament completes its term on March 23.
In that case, politicians are required to be members of a political party for at least 90 days prior to the election date, or they lose eligibility as MP candidates for that party. This makes Feb 7 the last day that potential election candidates can switch parties.
But in the case of a House dissolution, politicians are instead required to join a party to qualify as election candidates at least 30 days before election day. If the House is dissolved one day before it completes its term, those wishing to switch parties must have found a new home by Feb 22 at the latest.
From this, observers expect February to be a tumultuous period for politicians, especially those in the PPRP, Democrat Party, UTN, and BJT. Their poll performance will depend on how many A-listers each respective party can attract.
It is expected that Gen Prayut will try to hold on as long as possible until the parliament runs its course since the UTN is still in its infancy stage and is not really ready for the poll.
The UTN's poor form stems from Gen Prayut's late decision on whether and when to join the party. Such hesitation sent a message to other politicians who initially showed interest in the new party to now consider otherwise.
With such a reluctant start, UTN has become a "for-election" party. It's a party with no strong selling point except for projecting Gen Prayut as its leader. But, like it or not, the party must accept that the prime minister is politically on his last legs.
More importantly, the newly established party will find it difficult to get strong canvassers for the country's 400 constituencies. The best hope for an election win is to "fish in their friends' pond", enticing MPs from coalition partners like the PPRP and the Democrat Party, which are also struggling.
Another major problem facing the UTN is the lack of unity among its key figures, who come from various backgrounds. As a team, they need to be fine-tuned but is such an effort even realistic given the time constraints?
Meanwhile, its rivals have unveiled their poll campaign policies aimed at wowing eligible voters. The UTN has no flagship policies except for projecting Gen Prayut as a leader and making pledges against corruption while capitalising on the nation-religion-monarchy stance that's featured in every party's script.
As mentioned, Gen Prayut has no choice but to stay up until the last minute in the hope that the UTN can fish as many possible MPs from other parties in order for it to have a chance at the polls.
From now on, we will see Gen Prayut making field trips as often as he can and handing out gifts to the public out of the hope this could help boost his popularity.
Of course, he will be accompanied by a "little cabinet'' from the UTN and his advisers, including Mr Seksakol. This will, though, raise the question of whether such practices breach political etiquette, given that he could be seen as unfairly using his top position to take advantage of other parties ahead of the polls.
One thing is certain, things will not be smooth for Gen Prayut and his UTN. As mentioned, to be eligible for premier candidacy submission, his untested party needs to first get the minimum requirement of 25 MPs.
Along the way, he will have to face fierce challenges from other parties who will not stay idle ahead of the polls. Time will soon enough tell if it will be a dream come true or a dream shattered for the ex-junta head.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.