Political minefield awaits Prayut government 

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As the dust settled on the Bangkok gubernatorial elections, Captain Thammanat Promphao wrote a curiously phrased post on his Facebook page. “Congratulations to everyone in our family who won council seats in several districts” he wrote. An innocuous statement at first glance — until one remembers that his party, the Thai Economics Party, did not field any candidates in this race. So who is his political “family”? 

Perhaps he was referring to his allies who were officially running with the Rak Khrung Thep group. Or he was congratulating the Pheu Thai Party, to which he once belonged, for winning the most seats. Thammanat later clarified that it was directed at his allies with Rak Khrung Thep, Palang Pracharath, and “various other parties.” It was a reminder that his powerful figure, whom the prime minister had sidelined after he led a failed parliamentary coup last year, retains his influence.

Just as importantly, Thammanat retains his marked opposition to the prime minister. The former deputy agricultural minister once again mentioned his “family” in a press conference, where he noted that although his Thai Economics Party only had 16 MPs, he in reality is able to control upwards of 40 MPs in his “family.” This was in response to a question about how a Palang Pracharath minister had confidently stated that the government can survive even without the TEP’s support. These grandstanding ministers should be careful, he warned: he had not yet decided which ministers he would support in the upcoming censure debate. 

All of this is happening against the backdrop of Thammanat’s various machinations in the past few weeks. He has seized control of his party, ousting General Wit Thephasdin Na Ayutthaya, a close ally of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. This has effectively made him and his party an independent actor, unbound to any obligations to their former bosses. Thammanat, it seems, is intent on drifting the other way. Prawit himself had to put a halt to a plan by Thammanat to dine with Pheu Thai’s leaders, but how much influence does he really retain over Thammanat?

Ominous signs, indeed, for Prime Minister Prayut. The premier, in the final year of his term, faces several political headwinds that could lead to his government’s premature cessation. 

Firstly, Prayut this week faces the first reading of his government’s budget for the coming year. By convention the prime minister would resign or dissolve parliament if the budget fails to pass. The opposition parties have already indicated they will seek to vote down Prayut’s 3.18 trillion baht budget, while the major coalition parties promised to support it. Its fate, therefore, rests on Thammanat and the MPs he controls. 

Yet it appears unlikely that this is the avenue through which Prayut’s enemies will seek to topple him. For one, Pheu Thai itself may not actually want a new election quite this early. As Veera Prateepchaikul noted in the Bangkok Post, this would delay the passage of the organic laws on the new election system that is believed to favor bigger parties like Pheu Thai. Given the party had invested so much time and effort into this aspect of constitutional reform, will it not wish to wait and seal the deal? Failing to pass a budget could also have severe consequences, potentially causing budgetary issues for various ministries and hampering the economic recovery. 

Indeed, the opposition may not be targeting the budget as D-Day for removing Prayut from power because it will soon have another opportunity. Pheu Thai leader Cholanan Srikaew has stated that he will petition for a censure debate in the middle of June, meaning it will likely occur at the end of June or in early July. Given the government’s shaky majority, should Thammanat have the numbers and the inclination, he could decide the fate of several ministers — or the prime minister himself. 

Whether Thammanat truly has the numbers to sink the budget or topple the government in a motion of no confidence, of course, is an open question. Assuming that every MP in Thammanat’s party votes with a completely unified opposition, they would have 234 MPs on their side — an insufficient number to sink the government and its 248 MPs.

However, if Thammanat’s “family” is anywhere near as large as he claims, Prayut could be in trouble.

Outside of parliament, the prime minister also still faces a key test: a court ruling on whether or not he can legally continue to serve as prime minister. The constitution imposes a term limit of eight years, and Prayut assumed office on August 24th, 2014. 

The government specialist on legal affairs, Wissanu Kreau-ngarm, has said that if Prayut were to be forced to step down, Prawit would be next in line to serve as a caretaker prime minister. However, parliament would still have to convene to pick a new leader from the bank of candidates from the 2019 general election. 

When Prayut came to power in 2014, few would have assumed that he would still be in office in 2022. It remains possible that he will survive to run for office again at the next general election. But facing such strong political headwinds, the prime minister will need a fair dose of  political skill and luck if he is to remain in power over the next few months. 

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