Perilous year awaits shaky govt
ANALYSIS: Tenure expiry row, governor poll and censure debate may add to Prayut's falling popularity woes
This year looks likely to be a daunting one for the government dogged by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's tenure expiry wrangle, a new round of censure debate and the all-important question of how soon a general election will be held.
But first, a litmus test of party popularity will come when the Bangkok governor election is held in the middle of the year.
The gubernatorial race may be the closest contest to a general election. The ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) secured 12 MP seats out of 30 in Bangkok in the 2019 general election with the Future Forward Party, now morphed into the Move Forward Party, and the Pheu Thai Party each winning eight MPs.
The PPRP is struggling to find a potential candidate to field in the governor poll after Pathum Thani governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said he had decided not to stand.
Mr Narongsak, made famous by his role in directing the 2018 rescue of the young "Wild Boars" football team trapped in a cave in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district, was widely thought to be the PPRP's trump card.
Politicians whom the party was preparing to field as candidates for the upcoming Bangkok councillor polls, expected around the same time as the governor election, have also opted out and instead decided to run as independents.
These developments do not bode well for the PPRP's chances in the governor poll or the next general election. They may well reflect Gen Prayut's falling popularity in the capital.
The governor contest, however, is the least of the government's problems, according to Phichai Ratnatilaka Na Bhuket, a political scientist at the National Institute of Development Administration.
He told the Bangkok Post the odds suggest the government will not last much longer. In parliament, the frequent lack of a quorum at House meetings is a clear indication of the government being weak at making its MPs toe the line. As a result, the government is reluctant to forward its draft legislation fearing it might be voted down by the opposition.
A no-confidence motion against cabinet members could be filed by the opposition in May, which could land the government in a particularly precarious situation.
PM on unsteady ground
Gen Prayut stands on politically wobbly ground amid an unsettled rift with the PPRP secretary-general Thamanat Prompow, who tried to stage a mutiny by getting renegade MPs to cast a vote of no-confidence against Gen Prayut in last year's censure debate.
A fresh no-confidence motion could renew a threat to Gen Prayut's premiership if the conflict between him and Capt Thamanat remains unresolved.
Phichai: Poll least of govt's problems
Mr Phichai said that without compromise with Capt Thamanat, a no-confidence debate could prove politically fatal for Gen Prayut.
This is set against widening cracks in the PPRP caused by Gen Prayut's order to set up an independent committee to review the Justice Ministry's criteria in reducing jail terms for inmates in corruption cases via a royal pardon.
The move may have upset Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin, a core figure of the powerful "Sam Mitr" or Three Allies faction in the ruling party.
Any displeasure from the faction could put even more pressure on the PPRP from within and Gen Prayut would feel the heat.
On the Bangkok governor election, Mr Phichai said local politicians originally slated to run for councillor seats under the PPRP's banner may be concerned about the party's drop in popularity in the capital and figured they would be more attractive to voters as independents.
Gen Prayut's occasional faux pas and verbal slip-ups have been the subject of ridicule in some quarters. That can take its toll on Gen Prayut's and the PPRP's standing in the polls.
The premier is also facing questions over his term in office, which the constitution caps at eight years.
Theories abound on when his tenure will expire; in August this year if one starts counting in 2014 when the National Council for Peace and Order ousted the Pheu Thai Party-led administration and Gen Prayut subsequently was made prime minister; in 2025 when the current charter was promulgated; and 2027 when the previous election was organised and Gen Prayut was elected by parliament to be premier
Gen Prayut's fate as PM rests in the hands of the Constitutional Court which has the authority to rule on the tenure issue.
Defiant PM vows to stay longer
However, Mr Phichai said Gen Prayut has downplayed speculation of an early election in the middle of the year by announcing he will stay in office to host the 2022 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in November.
He has made it known he will not bow to pressure to dissolve the House and call for fresh elections.
Stithorn: Protesters lost momentum
However, Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, sees fewer tough challenges ahead for the government.
The anti-government street rallies have lost much of their momentum with leading members facing jail or remanded in custody.
The vaccine situation is also favourable for the government as most people now have received jabs. Also, key economic indices continue to improve following the country's reopening on Nov 1 last year after almost two years of pandemic crisis.
Turning to the Bangkok governor contest, the academic said the PPRP may not be in such dire straits despite not having an ideal candidate.
Records show that parties that fare well in governor polls lose in general elections in the end. The Democrat Party, for example, won four governor polls in a row but failed to impress in general elections.
"The outcome of local polls has nothing to do with how a party performs in the main battle [the general election]," he said.
As for the censure debate, Mr Stithorn said the PM might not be perturbed by the prospect of another no-confidence motion against him and his cabinet.
Gen Prayut has already endured several censure debates and managed to survive them all. If a debate was called closer to the end of the government's term in March next year, it would not be so potent, he said.
"What Gen Prayut will not do is dissolve the House as he appears confident he can hang in there and let the government serve out its term."
A government usually disbands the House at its most opportune time politically. However, the Prayut government will not likely gain the upper hand in the near future that would motivate it to clear the decks early, he said, adding it knows enough to keep itself afloat rather than take unnecessary risks.
Meanwhile, Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew foresees a general election taking place in March this year at the earliest as organic laws are being amended quickly to resuscitate the dual-ballot election system.
MPs from the government camp were moving fast to push for the amendment, indicating they anticipated an early election. Also, the MPs were busy visiting constituencies and surveying potential candidates.
He said ideally, the election may be held in August, possibly coinciding with the Constitutional Court ruling being sought to rule on Gen Prayut's tenure.