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General Wit Thephasadin Na Ayudhya has been through his fair share of Thai political party drama lately.
At the start of this year, he was the chief strategist for the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP). He then did a short stint as the head of the Thai Economics Party, the PPRP breakaway party formed by Captain Thammanat Promphao, but that did not last too long as tension between the two men burst into the open quickly, leading Gen Wit to resign his post.
Now, he heads the Ruam Paendin Party, which he has hinted is willing to support Prawit Wongsuwan, the acting prime minister, for the premiership at the next election if he is still healthy.
That was a dizzying array of party names and political figures, to be sure, and it encapsulates the current flux in Thailand’s political party landscape. Longstanding parties have uncertain futures. New parties are emerging. And yet other parties that seem new at first glance are already considering closing up shop.
What is happening in the world of Thailand’s political parties?
Thailand’s conservative flank fractures
Firstly, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha remains a central character in Thai party politics, even as he has been sidelined by the Constitutional Court for several weeks. His fate will be decided on Friday by the court.
The prime minister never became a member of the Palang Pracharath party, which propelled him back to power in 2019. Since then, it was oft-rumored that Prayut was looking for a party that could be his own power base; the PPRP, after all, is headed by Prawit.
But in recent months, parties such as the Terd Thai Party headed by Seksakol “Rambo Isaan” Attawong have been formed ostensibly to support Prayut as prime minister in the next election.
The Constitutional Court’s suspension, however, dealt a serious blow to Prayut’s long-term position, and it appears that the conservative parties are already adjusting to this new political reality.
That the Ruam Paendin Party has talked up Prawit as a potential long-term leader is a clear indication that it thinks the deputy prime minister is electorally viable and could want the job.
Meanwhile, Peerapan Saliratwipak, a former advisor to Prayut who built his name in the Democrat Party, has also been positioning himself for a run as prime minister with the Ruam Thai Sang Chat Party.
Peerapan has previously been loyal to Prayut, but he is also clearly ambitious, given that he also formerly ran for Democrat leader.
His party now talks openly about a post-Prayut era, with its secretary-general recently saying in an interview: “We must begin thinking about a time where General Prayut is no longer around. There must be a new party for those who previously admired [Prayut]…I think this is why there must be the Ruam Thai Sang Chat Party, with a leader like Peerapan.”
Of course, Prayut is down but his political prospects have hardly been mortally wounded; he could return to his office in Government House as soon as this Friday. But it is increasingly evident that after 8-years, minds are beginning to focus on a time when he is no longer sitting in the prime minister’s chair.
Centrist parties feel the squeeze
The other major realignment happening in the Thai political sphere is occurring with Thailand’s “centrist” parties: those that are attempting to position themselves in the middle ground between the progressive and Thaksinite camp on one hand and the conservative pro-Prayut parties on the other.
With insufficient space for all these middle-ground parties to succeed, talk is in the air of mergers. Indeed, one has already happened yesterday.
The Kla Party, founded by former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij, recently elected a brand new slate of executives without any of the party’s major names. Korn Chatikavanij, the party’s founder, has instead taken almost 40 of the party’s candidates to join the Nakhon Ratchasima-based Chart Pattana Party, which has rebranded as ‘Chart Pattana Kla.’
This marriage is not the most natural one: Kla positioned itself as a modern, forward looking party focused on the economy and innovation, while Chart Pattana’s key figures still talk about their glory days under Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan nearly 30-years ago.
But perhaps it was a necessity. Kla had been struggling after it failed to win any of the byelections it contested in the past two years; Chart Pattana itself saw its base in Nakhon Ratchasima increasingly under threat.
Even more importantly, both parties were staring at electoral doom after the parliament passed a new election system where smaller parties would be institutionally disfavored.
Combining Kla’s fresh brand with Chart Pattana’s local networks was a possible solution to their fading prospects.
The mergers may not end there. Sang Anakhot Thai, which is proposing former deputy prime minister and economics tzar Somkid Jatusripitak for the premiership, also faces an uncertain future under the new electoral rules; the same applies for Sudarat Keyuraphan’s Thai Sang Thai Party, which is unable to match the name recognition of its founder. Khrungthep Turakij revealed that the two have been in political discussions.
Such a merger would not be electorally frictionless. Sudarat, given her long association with Thaksin, is not at all popular with the Thai electorate; on the other hand, Somkid’s service under Prayut hardly endears him to Sudarat’s natural base either.
Putting either as the party head could alienate the other’s supporters. Yet given that Sang Anakot Thai had already pledged it would not support the Prayut-Prawit-Anupong triumvirate at the next election, there is a possibility this merger could work.
Faced with the hard truths about electoral reality, it would not at all be surprising if a super-merger of Thailand’s moderate parties does happen.
The question, however, is whether that would be enough to save them. These new parties, after all, are running on untested proposition that there is a middle ideological path in Thai politics.
With the intensifying polarization in Thailand of recent years, however, they may feel increasingly squeezed to pick a clear side as election day approaches.