Prayut walks on thin ice

Prayut walks on thin ice

Analysis: Govt faces uncertainty after sacking of influential PPRP member

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha talks to reporters at Government House on Friday. (Government House photo)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha talks to reporters at Government House on Friday. (Government House photo)

The possibility of the government completing its four-year term in March next year hangs in the balance as a mid-year censure debate will be critical to its fate.

After repeatedly stressing he intends to see out his tenure, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha changed his tone when asked by reporters late last week about a possible early election. He told them he could not say whether he would dissolve the House before two organic laws related to the election system were approved in parliament.

The organic laws -- the Political Parties Act and the MP Election Act -- are to be amended to reflect the plan to revert the kingdom's voting system back to the dual-ballot system, one for electing constituency MPs and another for party-list MPs.

Gen Prayut's remarks show an amount of uncertainty over the government's fate, and one key factor behind it is the pullout of 21 MPs from the ruling-Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).

The group of MPs is led by former PPRP secretary-general Thamanat Prompow, the former deputy agriculture and cooperatives minister who was sacked from the cabinet last year by Gen Prayut.

Capt Thamanat engineered a plot to topple Gen Prayut by persuading MPs in coalition parties, including the PPRP, to vote against him in a no-confidence debate in September.

He is considered the right-hand man of Deputy Prime Minister and PPRP leader Prawit Wongsuwong, Gen Prayut's "brother in arms", and has become an influential figure in the political scene.

Citing Gen Prawit, Gen Prayut insisted last week the breakaway faction, which would join the Setthakij Thai Party (Thai Economic Party), will support the coalition government. However, in politics, there are no permanent friends or foes, and politicians are ready to switch camps if interests align.

While Gen Prawit has shown no sign of withdrawing support from the prime minister, political sources say the two men have grown apart.

Cracks in their relations are hard to mend, especially from political situations where Gen Prayut made decisions without listening to Gen Prawit, including the removal of Capt Thamanat and others close to Gen Prawit from their positions.

Last week, Gen Wit Devahastin na Ayudhya, chairman of the PPRP's strategic committee, on Facebook announced his resignation from the ruling party to take the helm at the Setthakij Thai Party. The resignation of Gen Wit, known to be one of Gen Prawit's close aides, came five months after he was appointed to the post.

In the announcement, Gen Wit said he left to "continue the policy of Brother Pom [Gen Prawit]" at the Setthakij Thai Party. However, the announcement was replaced with a new one that no longer mentioned the PPRP leader.

This development speaks volumes about the link between Gen Prawit and the new political home of the 21 MPs, albeit with no confirmation from the PPRP leader.

Several analysts agree that the Setthakij Thai Party could be a game-changer in the political scene, and the changes might come soon.

On Feb 17-18, the opposition will grill the government in a general debate, but it is unlikely to shake the government's stability as the debate will be held without a vote at the end.

However, it could further hurt the government's image as it stands accused of failing to tackle soaring prices. The current House session closes at the end of this month.

The critical moment for the government is in July when the opposition is expected to launch a no-confidence debate against the government and Gen Prayut. Once the motion is accepted, he is not authorised to dissolve the House.

By that time, the political temperature will be soaring. Gen Prayut's political risks are high, and the government's fate is believed to be in the hands of Capt Thamanat and a group of opposition MPs currently siding with the government.

At present, there are 475 MPs in the House, with the coalition government commanding a majority of 268. Without Capt Thamanat's faction and the rebel opposition MPs, the government's number is down to 238, which is equal to half of all MPs.

The government will be in a risky situation because, with 268 MPs in its control, the government has a hard time maintaining a quorum in House meetings.

If the government fails to muster the 238 votes it needs to survive the no-confidence debate, the prime minister and the cabinet ministers are obliged to resign.

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