The ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) is being rocked by defections as about 40 MPs are expected to migrate to other parties, according to a party source.
They include the newly established United Thai Nation Party (UTNP), or Ruam Thai Sang Chart, which Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is tipped to join. Many PPRP MPs are expected to follow in his footsteps.
The likelihood of Gen Prayut moving to the UTNP gained momentum after he reportedly met Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, the PPRP leader, at the office of the Foundation for the Conservation of Forests in Five Adjoining Provinces in the compound of the 1st Infantry Regiment in Bangkok on Sunday.
Gen Prayut is believed to have informed Gen Prawit of his plan to switch parties ahead of the coming general election.
The source said Gen Prayut's rift with the PPRP emerged as he was at odds with Capt Thamanat Prompow, the party's former secretary-general, who allegedly tried to mobilise no-confidence votes against the premier during a censure debate. Gen Prayut later sacked Capt Thamanat as deputy agriculture minister in September last year.
Gen Prawit was said to have sided with Capt Thamanat during the conflict, the source said.
The source further said that about 40 PPRP MPs are expected to defect to other parties including the UTNP and the Bhumjaithai Party, potentially leaving the PPRP with just 30 MPs.
Of the likely defectors, about 20 from a Chon Buri faction led by Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin as well as a group of southern MPs have been tipped to join the UTNP.
That party is led by Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, a former Democrat MP who serves as an adviser to the prime minister.
However, the UTNP will have to secure at least 25 seats (5% of the 500 House seats) as required by the constitution for it to nominate a prime ministerial candidate, the source said.
In light of this, the party will have to recruit high-calibre MP candidates to contest the election, particularly in the South, as Gen Prayut is still not popular among voters in the Northeast, the source said.
However, Gen Prayut's break-up with the PPRP could be part of an election strategy that involves setting up another party to work together in the next poll, the source added.
With Gen Prayut seemingly in need of an image makeover, moving to the UTNP could provide a platform for this.
He remained tight-lipped on Tuesday when asked by reporters about the rumours.
PPRP secretary-general Santi Promphat, who is also a deputy finance minister, denied any prior knowledge of such reports.
He declined to comment further on this, and whether he would stick with the PPRP and continue to support Gen Prawit.
Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin, chairman of the PPRP's strategy committee, also refused to comment when asked to speak about the future direction of the Sam Mitr faction. He said he would have to look into various political developments before discussing this.
He also declined to say whether the Sam Mitr faction would remain with the PPRP, citing the volatile political situation.
Senator Kittisak Rattanawaraha said if Gen Prayut moves to the UTNP, it would be part of a political strategy. After the election, the UTNP and PPRP are expected to work together as allies, he said, adding he did not think there was any rift between Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit.