Prayut counts on his allies
PM may have no choice but to rejig cabinet if he is to survive
Since assuming office in 2019 Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has faced down tough challenges including a plot to overthrow him from power in a no-confidence debate in September last year.
But his leadership will be put to its toughest test after a breakaway group of 18 MPs from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) applied for membership of the Setthakij Thai Party.
Despite assurances from PPRP leader Gen Prawit Wongsuwon that the group led by former secretary-general Capt Thamanat Prompow is loyal to the coalition government, 14 MPs in the group recently broke ranks and voted in favour of the Move Forward Party-sponsored bill on liberalisation of liquor production.
The group's move cast a shadow over the coalition government stability and Gen Prayut's plan to complete his four-year tenure.
With a fresh no-confidence motion expected to be filed as soon as the House of Representatives reconvenes in May, Gen Prayut is looking for ways to shore up his position. The Bangkok Post talked to political scientists to get their perspectives on the issue.
Cabinet shake-up to save the day
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, said a cabinet reshuffle is an easy and effective tool in shoring up stability without affecting coalition partners.
Gen Prayut may choose to bring on board "cobra" or renegade opposition MPs or give in to the Thamanat group's pressure and award cabinet posts to the group, he said.
He said the prime minister is aware of what the group is after but noted that if the latter is the case, Capt Thamanat is unlikely to be reinstated because he was removed from the cabinet by Gen Prayut's order.
Gen Prayut has yet to fill two seats left vacant by the sacking of Capt Thamanat and Narumon Pinyosinwat, a deputy labour minister, from the cabinet last year.
If Gen Prayut seeks to delay or avoid a House dissolution, reshuffling the cabinet might buy him more time, even though he has previously ruled out a reshuffle, he said.
"I don't think he [Gen Prayut] will give in easily and he may explore other options. When the time comes, it will be the Setthakij Thai Party that will be brought in because it seems to have leverage.
"Capt Thamanat may not be given the post he wants but if he insists, it will be a hard decision [for Gen Prayut]. A reshuffle should take place before May...before a censure debate," he said.
Mr Stithorn said the Thamanat group is not the only factor threatening to weaken the government, given the recent collapse of House meetings which have added to impressions that the government lacks the numbers to survive in office.
If Gen Prayut opts not to reshuffle the cabinet and faces a censure debate, the prime minister can still count on Gen Prawit's support, according to the academic.
All that said, Mr Stithorn believes the government can manage to soldier on probably until late this year, after the Apec summit. "There is nothing to worry about, just a political game from within that Gen Prayut has to play well," he said.
Time to get flexible?
Virot Ali, a political scientist at Thammasat University, said Gen Prayut needs to maintain control of votes in the House to hang on to his job and complete his Apec mission and that means he will have to start negotiating.
Gen Prawit, the Thamanat group and the Group of 16, which is a cross-party group of MPs being formed by Thai Civilized Party leader Mongkolkit Suksintharanon, are possible choices, he said.
There are also calls from some groups within the ruling party for changes, or they will have a hard time campaigning for votes in the next general election, he said.
"Of course Gen Prayut doesn't want to make any changes. He prefers to staying aloof when it comes to party politics or the PPRP. This is seen as him being inflexible and it is causing him trouble," he said.
A reshuffle, if it will occur, is likely to be limited and Gen Prayut may have to let go two cabinet posts under his own quota to keep the government stability intact until the Apec meeting is over, he said.
How the new cabinet line-up looks like will depend on the negotiations and it does not have to result in the reinstatement of the two sacked ministers, Mr Virot said.
Gen Prayut seems to be isolated and has lost much of his influence considering Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul's claim that he can muster enough votes for him and ensure stability, says the academic.
The Bhumjaithai Party has lured more MPs into its fold over the years which means it has more bargaining power and the coalition partner may be another group Gen Prayut may have to negotiate with, he said.
"Without a cabinet reshuffle Gen Prayut will not survive the next censure debate. And if there are no changes, it is likely that negotiations to rebalance interests will fail.
"Those who are concerned about the next polls might think there is no good in letting the government carry on. This is possible and Gen Prayut will be the country's first premier to fall because he loses a vote," he said.
Hanging by a thread
Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, expects the opposition bloc to file a no-confidence motion as soon as the House reconvenes in May.
He said the timing could not be any better for the opposition parties as the political temperature usually heats up in May with May 22 marking the eighth anniversary of Gen Prayut's stay in power since the 2014 coup.
Anti-coup demonstrators are likely to resume activities while those who are fed up with the government may intensify the political situation, he said.
In his opinion, Gen Prayut does not have many cards left to play and the government's stability does not depend on the PPRP but the Bhumjaithai Party, which has taken in three expelled MPs from the ruling party.
The relationship between Mr Anutin, Gen Prawit and Capt Thamanat is interesting and the coalition partner will have more bargaining power from now on especially after the next election, he said.
Mr Wanwichit said Gen Prayut will need the Bhumjaithai as an ally at the next poll because the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party founded by Seksakol Atthawong, an aide to the prime minister, to back Gen Prayut in the next election is not strong enough to help capture enough House seats for Gen Prayut.
The Bhumjaithai leader will be pivotal in the formation of the future government and there is a possibility that Mr Anutin will receive backing from the Pheu Thai Party as the next prime minister, he said.
If Gen Prayut survives the no-confidence debate, he is likely to forge a compromise by reshuffling cabinet, he said. "The Prayut government will closely monitor the number of votes and lobby hard in every crucial vote," he said.
According to Mr Wanwichit, for Gen Prayut to step down "safely" from power, he will need an ally like Mr Anutin to succeed him.
Mr Anutin, he said, will continue supporting Gen Prayut and maintain good ties rather than making any move that will lead to an early election as the party is not quite ready for the contest. "The situation is similar to that in Indonesia when then president Suharto resigned and handed over the post to his vice president B J Habibie. Mr Anutin could play a similar role," he said.
Election bills top priority
A no-confidence debate is likely to wait until two organic laws related to the elections of MPs clear the House, according to Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
He said the opposition will not launch the censure motion until the election rules are finalised. As things stand, the bills should clear parliament by the end of July.
A difference in opinion especially between the opposition Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties remains when it comes to the calculation and distribution of party-list seats, he said.
The collapse of House meetings due to a lack of quorum will continue as part of the "political games" played by the opposition to undermine the government which has unity problems, said Mr Yutthaporn.
But forced adjournments are unlikely to trigger a House dissolution and crucial draft legislation such as the budget bill for the 2023 fiscal year is not due for another few months, he said.
Mr Yutthaporn said he believes the Thamanat group will operate as a "free agent" rather than an independent opposition group because it gives the group more negotiating power.
"They are free to move and they can trigger political changes, so the government will have to deal with them on a case-by-case basis," he said.
The crucial point for the prime minister will arrive when the no confidence motion or the budget bill is up for a vote, he said, pointing to the incident last September when Gen Prayut's leadership was challenged.
He said the Bhumjaithai Party is likely to stick with the coalition government while trying to negotiate for a certain cabinet post such as the interior minister portfolio.
"This kind of movement is anticipated when the government is close to completing its term. And by that time if there is a crisis of faith, the coalition partner may consider withdrawing support," he said.
Mr Yutthaporn said the two vacant cabinet seats, both of which are deputy positions, are not considered a trump card for Gen Prayut because other coalition partners will not make a trade.