Opinion: The hubris of Palang Pracharath

“Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight. For the greatest tragedy of them all, is never to feel the burning light.” 

Words penned, supposedly, by Oscar Wilde, and ones that Thailand’s ruling party seems committed to heeding. 

Palang Pracharath is currently a party to envy. Helped by a favorable constitution, its political position is impregnable. With a majority much bolstered by defections, its parliamentary strength is unassailable. The opposition, weakened and divided, presents no real threat. Thailand’s success in suppressing the coronavirus has earned plaudits. 

One would imagine that a competent government would capitalize on this situation by presenting itself as a strong guiding hand that can continue moving the nation forward as it faces the economic crisis. Shuffle out Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak’s men, perhaps, so that a spent force can be replaced with a more energetic team. Present the country with a strong vision for recovery and adjustments for the post-pandemic world. If Prayut ever wanted to reduce the appetite for democratic change with the alternative of stable leadership, now would appear to be the time. 

Incredibly, however, the PPRP has decided that this moment would be perfect for indulging in much more pleasurable pursuits. Factional infighting, backroom dealing, whispers of backstabbing: why offer the country strong direction when one can pursue the traditional joys of Thai politics?

It would be one thing, of course, if the results of such infighting yielded credible figures who can be the face of the government in this time of crisis. Yet the party made no attempt to do any such thing. 

First came the elevation of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan as leader of the party. It is a move akin to if the Republican Party decided to make Dick Cheney their frontman: an indispensable figure to the prime minister’s rule, yes, but hardly someone with any popular touch. 

The machinations that led to the general’s elevation brought with it some farcical moments. During a party meeting, for example, a Bangkok MP suggested that no one that has had ties to the drug trade should be given a position on the party’s executive committee. This prompted an angry response from a Kampangpetch MP who yelled angrily, “Are you crazy?” Optics — and morals — be damned! 

And now with Prawit at the helm of the party, a raft of other changes are expected. It was floated that Professor Narumon Pinyosinwat, the government spokeswoman, would be appointed as head of the party’s economic team. The prospect of such a critical post being filled by a political neophyte at this time of maximum crisis led to a torrent of pushback even from the government’s supporters, and Prawit clarified that Narumon will head the policy-writing team instead. But it is still a revealing episode, showing the extent to which experience is not an asset under the new party leader’s regime.

More appointments are on the way. The prime minister has denied that he is planning a government reshuffle soon. Yet it is unrealistic to think that with Somkid’s faction completely sidelined within the PPRP, there would be no changes to the cabinet, especially given that key budget decisions are soon coming up. 

The PPRP knows that they are in power. They know that their opponents are weak. They know that for now, they can do whatever they like. There are few words to describe these scenes other than with the term hubris: that lack of self-awareness, that overconfidence, that arrogance. 

In Greek tragedies, hubris leads to nemesis. But here, the tragedy is that those who will bear the brunt of the PPRP’s hubris will be ordinary Thais. Thailand’s economy is already projected to be the worst hit in Southeast Asia this year. The World Bank has shown that poverty has dramatically increased, making acute a level of economic inequality that had already been worsening prior to the crisis. 

Yet instead of putting in place proficient economic hands who can guide Thailand through this mess, the ruling coalition is obsessed with fulfilling factional demands. 

Of course, it is only hubris if the PPRP suffers actual consequences, which is unlikely as long as the 2017 constitution remains unamended. But it would be foolish of the government to think that it can act with total impunity. Its political position is strong, for now, but it also rests on fragile ground. Discontent remains high from those already disinclined to back this government. There is disgust from even the government’s own supporters at this unseemly display of cake division. 

And we must not discount where such hubris could end. The prime minister himself looks increasingly like a mere figurehead for a coalition run by his de jure deputy. If the coalition’s core party feels comfortable placing Prawit as party leader, what stops them from discarding the figurehead altogether, as local media has already begun speculating? An outrageous proposition, perhaps, but can anyone say with a straight face that it is out of the realm of possibility? 

The savvy general looks at his watch and thinks that his time in the spotlight has come. But one can be forgiven for suspecting that putting Prawit in the party’s top job could be the PPRP flying a little too close to the sun. 

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