Few threats on horizon
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Few threats on horizon

Govt 'likely to serve out its term' with censure hurdle cleared

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha talks to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon during the censure debate in Parliament on July 23, 2022. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha talks to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon during the censure debate in Parliament on July 23, 2022. (Photo: Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

The post-censure debate period may pose less of a hassle for the government, with the growing prospect of a return to power of the current coalition parties after the next election, say political scientists.

The no-confidence debate from July 19-22 caused little damage to the government as all 11 cabinet ministers including Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha survived the onslaught.

It was the fourth and last such debate of this government, and perhaps the most highly anticipated given its potential to sink the coalition bloc.

However, the administration remains intact even though Gen Prayut was in fourth spot in the confidence vote tally. First place went to his deputy, Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, leader of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).

The censure round has blown over and now crucial questions linger: Can the government stay on to complete its term that expires in March next year?

What further obstacles lie in its path? And does Gen Prayut have a shot of staging a comeback as premier after the next election, expected some time towards the middle of next year?

Fewer obstacles ahead

Surachai Sirikrai, lecturer at Thammasat University's Political Science Faculty, said he believed Gen Prayut would complete his four-year term as prime minister.

The "means" have been distributed and resistance within the coalition ranks was too insignificant to make any difference, he said.

Mr Surachai was referring to the "Group of 16" MPs comprising some PPRP MPs and members of small parties, who vowed to vote against the censure targets. They were banking on their votes tipping the scale and overcoming the government's slim majority.

He conceded he was wrong to think the government would hit the dust after watching the four-day grilling in parliament.

"It's not how democracy should be. It turns out several parties which ought to be dependable jumped on the dictators' bandwagon," he said.

Ideally, the coalition camp would disintegrate if some coalition partners with a democratic conscience pulled out.

But in reality, the government was able to extend its lifeline when it had plenty of cash to spare and cabinet posts to offer in exchange for the parties' loyalty.

Also, the government is not visibly bothered by doubts over Gen Prayut's tenure, which emerges as the next biggest hurdle standing in the way of the administration completing its term next March.

The opposition is expected to jump at the chance to request the Constitutional Court to rule on Gen Prayut's tenure.

The main opposition Pheu Thai Party believes his eight-year term expires next month since he will have served two back-to-back four-year terms following the 2014 coup. The constitution caps a premier's term limit at eight years.

Even if Gen Prayut loses his prime minister seat, there is always the "Number 2," Gen Prawit, to succeed him.

The wrangle surrounding Gen Prayut's tenure would be solved if the premier were to step down and let Gen Prawit take his place, the academic said.

The succession would be smooth sailing for Gen Prawit and would also break no law.

"As long as one has the means and might at their disposal and a potential successor on standby and no election can unseat him, no task is impossible to accomplish.

"It is also why Thailand will never be a democratic country," he said.

A government could be driven out of power by a major political upheaval or a popular revolt.

"But there's nothing like that on the horizon because all coalition parties are united," Mr Surachai said.

If Gen Prayut is not able or willing to reclaim the premiership in the next elections, assuming the PPRP wins enough MP seats at the poll to be the core party in the next government, Gen Prawit may be the next prime minister on the condition the present coalition partners, such as the Democrat Party, want to maintain the status quo.

Mr Surachai said the present coalition bloc shows no sign of cracking while the three "Por" generals -- Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit and Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paochinda -- remain firmly in control of the government.

Govt 'immune' to pressure

Chaiyan Rajchagool, an expert at the School of Political and Social Science, University of Phayao, said Gen Prayut, who is seemingly immune to dramas inside parliament or from mass protests, can look forward to crossing the finishing line next March.

The tenure debate may not pose a problem for his political survival although whether he makes a comeback as premier after the next elections is another a story.

Mr Chaiyan said no projects or economic relief programmes rolled out by the government to win people's hearts and minds will change the minds of the prime minister's critics.

"Some people will be glad to get the aid but they still rebuke the premier," he said.

He said that at one point, heavy pressure was heaped on the government from both the anti-government protests and the opposition. "But nothing came of it," Mr Chaiyan said.

In that sense, the government's lifeline has nothing to do with parliament but the armed forces and the police. "Street protests never succeeded in ousting a government," he said.

From now until at least March next year, there will be little opportunity for the government to suffer major political assaults. Protests are expected to be few and far between as the country makes early preparations for the elections.

The present coalition line-up might re-assemble in some fashion after the next polls.

"Both the Bhumjaithai and the Democrat parties will likely stick with the current batch. It's a game of winning places in the government.

"The coalition camp stands a real chance of returning to occupy Government House if they can band together and with the help that is always on hand from the (coup-appointed) Senate," he said.

Meanwhile, Sutin Klungsang, chief opposition whip and Pheu Thai deputy leader, said the government is suffering deep disunity from infighting between or within coalition parties including the ruling PPRP.

Gen Prayut's tenure issue is a ticking time bomb, which will force the prime minister to resign and be replaced, or call for the House to be dissolved.

At the same time, the opposition will file criminal actions against cabinet ministers based on the allegations they faced in the censure debate.

"The situation will only get worse for the government," Mr Sutin said.

He believed that even if Gen Prayut clears the tenure obstacle, he will have to brace for a major conflict in the coalition parties stemming from the bid to rejig the party list MP calculation method.

Some coalition partners oppose plans to revert to the single-ballot election system.

The measures to improve the economy had also yet to pay off, he added.

Tenure issue vital

Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a scholar at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science, said the only make-or-break development will be the Constitutional Court's ruling on Gen Prayut's term limit. He understood the opposition was planning to file a case with the court in September.

In his opinion, he said calculating the PM's tenure should start when the charter was promulgated in 2017 and not back to the day Gen Prayut began serving as prime minister in August 2014, which was a few months after the National Council for Peace and Order engineered the military coup.

Gen Prayut took the premiership when social divisions had come to a head and the country was in a grip of political disarray. Also, the country was mourning the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great.

"That period of time when the country was not in a normal state should not have counted toward the prime minister's tenure," he said.

There are several theories as to when Gen Prayut's tenure should have commenced.

If Gen Prayut makes it through the tenure quagmire, he should be able to hang on until the end of the year when Thailand hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum.

Apec may improve the government's image and it would likely seize the opportunity to dissolve the House and call for an election shortly after the summit to capitalise on the favourable situation.

The government has tried to win over the people with aid programmes and relief measures. However, it has been weak in selling the programmes in social media.

Olarn Thingbangtiew, a political scientist at Surapha University, said the censure debate highlighted the fact that Gen Prawit was the government patriarch who commanded the respect of MPs and hogged the power.

He was convinced Bhumjaithai, with 60 MPs, will gain up to 20% more MPs in the next elections. It might swing away from the PPRP-led bloc and join the Pheu Thai in forming the next government.

"The scenario could unleash an exodus of PPRP MPs who will defect to the Bhumjaithai-Pheu Thai alliance and Gen Prayut will be left behind," he said.

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