Purge tests PM's resolve
Analysis: Prayut dismisses cabinet reshuffle but his options are limited
All eyes are on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's next move following the purge of 21 MPs from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) including Thamanat Prompow, the party's former secretary-general.
Political analysts believe the group's departure will weaken the coalition government and leave Gen Prayut to grapple with how to ensure that the administration completes its four-year term or prolongs its tenure, at least to the end of this year.
Capt Thamanat's group is thought to be joining the Setthakij Thai Party (Thai Economic Party) linked to PPRP leader Prawit Wongsuwon.
With 21 votes in their pocket, the group is believed to have bargaining power for one or two cabinet seats.
However, Gen Prayut has ruled out a cabinet shake-up after their exit from the PPRP.
"I insist that I have no intention to change the cabinet line-up or dissolve the House," said Gen Prayut.
According to political analysts, Gen Prayut is deemed to have only two choices: either compromise by reshuffling the cabinet and awarding a cabinet seat to this group, or making do with what he has -- a slim majority.
Gen Prawit reportedly informed the party when it met to debate the fate of Capt Thamanat's faction on Jan 19 that the group would not join the opposition.
It is believed that Gen Prayut wanted Capt Thamanat out of the party while Gen Prawit preferred to see him break away to set up a new party that would serve as a PPRP ally to prepare for the next election.
Capt Thamanat was considered Gen Prawit's right-hand man. However, he fell out of favour with the premier after attempting to topple him in a censure debate last year.
The expelled MPs are set to move to the Setthakij Thai Party, headed by Gen Wit Devahastin na Ayudhya, who will reportedly resign as chairman of the PPRP's strategic committee.
Capt Thamanat will assume the role of deputy leader while Apichai Techa-ubon will quit as a list Democrat MP to serve as the new party's secretary-general.
Gen Prawit reportedly tried to lobby Gen Prayut to bring the Setthakij Thai Party on board. Gen Prayut's "no reshuffle, no dissolution" stance on Jan 20 was interpreted as there being no deal.
However, the prime minister reportedly came to see Gen Prawit at his home for several days.
As such, Gen Prawit's Jan 25 affirmation that the 21 MPs would support the government was seen as a signal that Gen Prayut might compromise.
Gen Prawit was quoted as saying: "Never fear. They still back us." However, political analysts expect such backing could be traded for a ministerial post in the future.
The PPRP MPs and members loyal to Gen Prayut apparently do not like this option and see it as an attempt to intensify pressure to dissolve the House and call an early election.
"Gen Prayut's plan is to stay on and see through the Apec summit in November. But the plan of Gen Prawit and Capt Thamanat is to dissolve the House as soon as possible," said a source loyal to Gen Prayut.
Including the Setthakij Thai Party in the coalition government would put Gen Prayut at a disadvantage and he would have to consider various options including taking the helm of the PPRP, said the source.
Gen Prayut was said to be mulling consolidating his power within the ruling party following the attempt to unseat him from the post.
Capt Thamanat is said to have persuaded a number of PPRP and other coalition party MPs to vote against the premier in the no-confidence debate.
Capt Thamanat was later sacked as a deputy agriculture minister, but was able to maintain his party-secretary post. The move put the pair at loggerheads.
Should Gen Prayut choose to compromise, a cabinet reshuffle would be made after the Election Commission (EC) endorses the group's expulsion.
However, Capt Thamanat will not be reinstated and the new coalition partner is expected to get one full ministerial post, or two deputy ministerial posts that could go to Gen Wit or Mr Apichai.
Democrat veteran Trairong Suwankhiri said the political situation is volatile but ruled out the possibility of another coup.
He said the purge would not affect the coalition government as the MPs would continue to support the coalition.
Mr Trairong said it was unlikely the prime minister would dissolve the House when two organic bills governing the elections of MPs have yet to be passed to reflect constitutional changes.
He said it would be unfair to the opposition parties if the government issued an executive decree governing the elections of MPs. The election laws would require vetting by parliament, he said.
Gen Prawit has appointed deputy leader Santi Promphat as the party's acting secretary-general following Capt Thamanat's exit.
Mr Santi, also party director and deputy finance minister, was said to be close to factions loyal to Gen Prawit before he switched his support to Gen Prayut.