Fraught with risk

Fraught with risk

Special report: PM's pre-poll options of staying put or jumping ship could both be hazardous for his future

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha smiles as he concluded the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok on Saturday. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha smiles as he concluded the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok on Saturday. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has kept many guessing as to what party he wants to nominate him as prime ministerial candidate at the next general election, assuming he intends to seek re-election as premier in parliament.

His decision will have implications for the "Three Por Generals" clique, the foundation of power in this government, and the political landscape after the next election.

The probable choices boil down to either the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party, or the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party.

A source close to Gen Prayut said the prime minister may have already decided which party to go for although he has kept it to himself, with an announcement more likely now the Apec summit 2022 has ended.

Different options, risks

Gen Prayut has much pondering to do as opting to remain with the PPRP or jumping ship entails different risks.

Gen Prayut has learned a rather painful lesson in retaining ties to the PPRP. He was exposed to the danger of being unseated as prime minister in a no-confidence debate last year when Capt Thamanat Prompow, the then secretary-general of the PPRP, teamed up with renegade MPs and small parties to cast a censure vote against Gen Prayut.

Some MPs in the ruling party were dissatisfied with the prime minister for being aloof with them.

The secret revolt was set against the backdrop of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, leader of the PPRP, supposedly safeguarding Gen Prayut, his close brother-in-arms in the powerful "Three Por Generals" clique. The other general is Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paojinda.

Gen Prayut managed to survive the grilling, albeit by a smaller margin than Gen Prawit who came away with high votes of confidence.

For a long time, Gen Prawit regarded Capt Thamanat as his right-hand man. Even after the revolt, Capt Thamanat continued to occupy the PPRP secretary-general post for months until he was eventually expelled from the ruling party.

The source said Gen Prayut had to step in, and through politicians close to him, rein in MPs in the PPRP to stem the revolt which subsequently led to Capt Thamanat being sacked as deputy agriculture minister and later purged by the PPRP as its member.

Since then, the deputy agriculture minister's post has been vacant. Finding a replacement, however, could drive a wedge between factions in the PPRP, which would compete for the ministerial seat, according to the source.

The divisions between factions have grown increasingly pronounced. One group of factions is rallying for Gen Prawit to be the PPRP's prime ministerial candidate alongside Gen Prawit.

The other group favours the party nominating Gen Prayut as its lone candidate for PM in the next polls. They have confidence he is still a political brand commanding a widespread following particularly in the South, as reflected in a recent survey by Nida Poll.

The PPRP executives trumpeting Gen Prayut as prime ministerial candidate in the next polls include Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin and Digital Economy and Society (DES) Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn.

They feel galvanised by the Nida Poll result which also shows that in constituency-rich Bangkok, Gen Prayut can give other parties a run for their money despite not being the most popular choice for PM in the next election.

The source said if the PPRP and its allies, such as the UTN, do not undercut each other's support bases in the capital, the PPRP stands a chance of winning some MP seats.

UTN kept in suspense

In the meantime, a source inside the UTN said the party is keeping its fingers tightly crossed, hoping Gen Prayut would agree, sooner rather than later, to be its prime ministerial candidate.

The UTN is apprehensive about the prospect of Gen Prayut staying put in the PPRP and cutting a deal with the ruling party where Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit would split the four-year term of prime minister equally among them (that is, if the PPRP can rake in enough MP seats in the next polls to come back as a ruling party).

The deal has been the subject of heavy speculation after the Constitutional Court decided Gen Prayut has two more years remaining of his time as prime minister.

If such deal was sealed, Gen Prayut would take the first half of the term as prime minister and Gen Prawit the latter, according to the source.

The Senate, appointed by the now-dissolved coup-engineer National Council for Peace and Order, is being counted on to vote for Gen Prayut's return as prime minister.

However, problems may arise when Gen Prawit takes over from Gen Prayut. Gen Prawit's prime ministerial candidacy will need to be brought for a vote in parliament. By that time, the current Senate will no longer be eligible to join MPs in voting on the prime ministerial nominations, leaving Gen Prawit's chance of capturing the prime minister seat in limbo.

PPRP impatient

In the meantime, the PPRP is mulling over a contingency in the event that Gen Prayut switches to the UTN.

A source said the Three Por generals have agreed on a plan for Gen Prayut to stick with the PPRP in the next polls and retain the UTN as the PPRP's closest ally. The prime minister is not technically a member of the ruling party although it nominated him as its sole prime ministerial candidate in the previous election.

The source said Gen Prayut warmed to such plan on the prediction that the UTN might not win more than 50 MP seats even with Gen Prayut as its prime ministerial candidate.

The UTN is likely to fare worse in the next polls than the PPRP and Bhumjaithai, the second-biggest coalition party. It might then be compelled to join the PPRP and the Bhumjaithai, which is likely to put in a strong showing, in forming the next government.

But the heavy risk lies with the UTN failing to gain at least 25 MP seats, which would prevent it from nominating a prime minister. If Gen Prayut were its candidate for premier, his nomination would be wasted.

Meanwhile, Gen Prayut's indecision on which party to seek a return as premier under is testing the PPRP's patience.

The source said some PPRP executives had advised Gen Prawit not to wait around for Gen Prayut to make up his mind as the ruling party should move ahead with the party's poll campaign.

Although late to hit the campaign trail, Gen Prawit has told the PPRP to devise a poll strategy and hit the ground running.

According to the source, the PPRP has strategised the campaign by putting forward three core missions to achieve poll success. They centre on promises of comprehensive welfare, economic revitalisation and social synergy.

Gen Prawit as solo candidate

Veerakorn Kamprakob, a veteran PPRP MP for Nakhon Sawan, said the two-year legal limit on Gen Prayut's eligibility to serve as prime minister has prompted the party to weigh the possibility of proposing Gen Prawit as its solo prime minister candidate.

"I'm not certain if the UTN can manage to pull in 25 MP seats or more. Given the two-year limit, should a sacrifice be made so Gen Prawit can be nominated for the premiership?" Mr Veerakorn said.

Gen Prawit should join the party and work as its full-time member to help mobilise support. The premier remains popular in many regions, particularly the South.

Mr Veerakorn said he personally believed Gen Prayut would not join the UTN. However, he has not ruled out a formula where Gen Prayut makes a comeback as prime minister on the UTN's ticket and the UTN forms a government with Bhumjaithai.

The parties can then split the prime minister's term between Gen Prayut and Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul.

He admits Bhumjaithai, with the potential to win more than 100 seats, will be much sought-after as a suitor.

Gen Prayut's strength

Witthaya Kaewparadai, a UTN core member, said the party has not approached Gen Prayut to join.

But Gen Prayut would make a significant contribution if he was part of things. The premier's indisputable strength was his unblemished track record from his zero involvement in corruption.

Mr Witthaya also dismissed attacks on Gen Prayut for being a dictator, saying he was given the mandate to serve as prime minister by the majority MPs in the House, which conforms to democratic principles.

The former MP voiced confidence the UTN will not have trouble capturing at least 25 MP seats in the next polls.

The main opposition Pheu Thai Party, on the other hand, will find it an uphill battle to realise its ambition of scoring a landslide victory, considering Gen Prayut has impressed many segments of the population, especially in the Northeast, with welfare cards.

The tie that binds

Political scientists, meanwhile, said they believed the UTN and the PPRP will combine forces and establish a government together after the next polls.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, said the PPRP was created originally to prolong Gen Prayut's hold on power. But now that he has two years remaining of his premiership, fielding him as PM candidate may not be worth the PPRP's time since the short stint would not be a strong point on the campaign trail.

But Gen Prawit, who faces no term limit and could serve as PM if chosen by parliament, comes across as offering a more stable government, which would incentivise other parties to set up government with the PPRP.

If Gen Prayut switched to the UTN, the party stands a chance of appealing to party list voters. The UTN's expected pool of list MPs and the PPRP's MP tally could send the number of MPs between the two parties to around 80-90, which would give them high bargaining power in the government formation process.

Despite Gen Prayut potentially bonding with the UTN, the "Three Por Generals" clique is unlikely to falter as together they can maintain a political upper-hand under the current power structure, said Olarn Tinbangtiew, a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science and Law, Burapha University.

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