Four things to watch in Thai politics in 2022

On December 15, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kruea-ngarm delivered an abnormally early new year’s message. He also included an unusual line, especially for the minister in charge of legal affairs: there may be “political changes” next year. 

What could he possibly be talking about? Difficult to tell as it may be, 2022 does promise to be another year of political movement and machinations. Indeed, it could be a year of major political change. Here are four things to watch in Thai politics in 2022. 

1. Can Prayut stay? 

The topic of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s political longevity has captivated Thai political commentators since the 2014 military coup. The prime minister has managed to survive every political challenge to him in the past seven years. He even came out on top amid the murky power struggle within the ruling Palang Pracharath party last year that came close to toppling the premier in a parliamentary no confidence debate. However, coalition enforcer Captain Thammanat Promphao failed to oust Prayut and was instead forced out of his cabinet post. Prayut continues to trumpet his brotherly triumvirate with General Prawit Wongsuwon, the key power broker of the government and head of the PPRP, along with Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda. 

Whether Prayut can survive his eighth year in office, however, is an open question. The prime minister plans to preside over the 2022 APEC Summit, which will be hosted in Bangkok; it is unlikely that he will quit on his own accord. However, the constitutional question of whether or not Prayut can serve further will loom over his premiership. The charter only permits a total of eight years in office for any prime minister, and Prayut was first appointed to office in 2014. A parliamentary legal team opined that the premier’s term actually started in June 2019, when he was elected by parliament under the provisions of the 2017 constitution, and his previous term under the interim charter did not count; this would make it possible for him to serve until 2027. This issue will certainly be brought to the constitutional court for a ruling. 

The constitutionality of his tenure notwithstanding, it is hardly inconceivable that other political issues can force him out. Although Thammanat’s challenge failed last year, an appealing political deal could lead to more knives drawn; many of the PPRP’s MPs were drawn, after all, from Pheu Thai’s ranks, and they do not necessarily owe Prayut any loyalty. Whether or not the prime minister may choose to dissolve the house this year is also an open question. Fresh polls will be due in 2023, and should political conditions prove favorable, the election calendar could be sped up. 

2. Is there room for any political reform? 

If 2020 was a year of political tumult and calls for change, all of that came crashing down in 2021 as the protests were impeded by both the pandemic and a lack of progress. The constitutional court’s ruling that the August 10, 2020 rally at Thammasat University amounted to an attempt to overthrow the political system did not energize protestors back into action and may well have discouraged further calls for reform. Formal proposals to amend the constitution were also voted down in parliament. 

Unless something dramatically changes, this year will likely only see a last gasp of any attempt at political reform: a proposal to amend Section 272 of the 2017 constitution, which permits the Senate to join with the House of Representatives in picking a prime minister. As I detailed in this article, a new push to gather signatures for this effort faces two significant headwinds: an unfriendly parliamentary arithmetic along with the possibility that this step fails to advance before an election is held, rendering it useless. 

3. What will the political party landscape look like by the general election? 

A couple of things should be watched. Firstly, newer parties will be on tough terrain this year. Since the 2019 general election, a number of smaller parties have emerged, such as Thai Sang Thai, KLA and Thai Pakdee. The latest party to emerge is former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak’s “Four Sons” faction, which was booted out of the PPRP and is now aiming to form the Sarng Anakot Thai Party. Yet this landscape is not particularly stable. With the decision by parliament last year to revert back to a 2-ballot system (the 2019 general election had only one ballot), it is commonly believed that large parties like Palang Pracharath and Pheu Thai will benefit while smaller parties will suffer. Already, opposition figure Chaturon Chaisang has abandoned his plans to build his own party in favor of rejoining Pheu Thai. 

Something else to watch are the tensions between intra-coalition and opposition parties. There is little love lost between the PPRP and Democrat parties, with the former poaching a former Democrat seat in a  Nakhon Sri Thammarat byelection last year. Should the PPRP win another Democrat seat in this month’s election, this portends a real threat to the Democrat stronghold in the South — indeed, the party’s last area of any strength — and may foreshadow the total extinction of the party in the next election. Pheu Thai and Move Forward, on the other hand, continue to feud periodically, pointing to a tough competition over a similar voter base as we near a general election. 

Finally, future court rulings deserve attention. Both the Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties face possible court cases that can lead to dissolution. Should one or both of the parties be dissolved, the opposition’s strength in parliament would once again diminish — and at this late stage, setting up a new party in time to fight a general election will be an uphill battle. 

4. Who will win the Bangkok gubernatorial election?

The Bangkok gubernatorial election will almost certainly be held this year. Former transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt continues to lead every poll, but he is threatened by the Move Forward Party’s candidate, to be announced later this month. Runner-up Democrat Party candidate Suchatvee Suwansawat, on the other hand, stands to gain from Move Forward’s entrance into the race, but he will also have to fend off a likely challenge from incumbent Governor Aswin Kwanmuang along with Sakhontee Phattiyagul, who recently quit the PPRP with plans to run for governor under the banner of an unspecified new party. Readers looking for a more in-depth dive into that race will be interested in this piece. 

It is easy to forget, however, that other races will also be taking place in addition to Bangkok’s gubernatorial race: elections for the Bangkok Metropolitan Council and Pattaya’s mayoral election. The BMC race will likely feature more political parties and will be a key testing ground for new parties to preview their election strength. At this point, it is still unclear whether or not elections for district councils, which were previously abolished, will be held. Parliament is currently considering this issue, with the coalition parties proposing to bring back the district races.

With the pandemic still continuing, constitutional questions unsettled, and various political parties on maneuvers both locally and nationally, 2022 promises to be a busy year for observers of Thai politics.

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