The past week, the outspoken conservative academic Seri Wongmontha, wrote a Facebook post on how he had once predicted that several MPs will resign from parliament in order to join a new party near the end of the term. He had been proven right, he noted, given that 31 MPs have just quit their posts.
But, Seri said, he was wrong on an important matter. He had thought the MPs would quit to join the Ruam Thai Saang Chat Party, which is being set up as the next electoral vehicle for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Instead, those MPs went on to join the Bhumjai Thai Party, led by Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.
“How is Anutin better than Prayut?” he queried. “I’m asking because I really don’t know, and I can’t think of any answers.”
It is a revealing post. For one, the fact that Seri could not think of a single reason why MPs might choose Anutin over Prayut shows that the ideological conservatives are still underestimating Bhumjai Thai’s appeal.
It also demonstrates that Prayut, for a long time the undisputed leader of the conservative camp, now has a clear challenger in the form of a man who in some ways represents his attitudinal opposite: an ideologically flexible politician clearly enthralled by dealmaking and who relishes the political arena.
Prayut has always been open about how much he detests politics and politicians. But it is to these political matters that Prayut must return to as he comes off the high of chairing the APEC Summit.
The first of his headaches is to deal with Bhumjai Thai’s big move. Where Seri failed, clearly the 31 MPs can clearly think of plenty of answers. It might have to do, as Khemthong Tonsakulrunruang of Chulalongkorn University hypothesized to BBC Thai, with the fact that Bhumjai Thai offers a perfect neutral option that both no longer want to be linked to Prayut and feel that the Thaksin (Shinawatra) brand has gone stale.
Pragmatic to the core, strong and radiating cross-regional appeal, Bhumjai Thai is a party on the ascent.
It also appears that Bhumjai Thai wants to lock in that ascent. With 30 MPs no longer sitting, the House of Representatives — already frequently adjourning due to a chronic inability to meet quorum — could become entirely paralyzed. This could force Prayut’s hand into dissolving parliament earlier than he desires, even as he and his likely new party is not yet entirely ready to face an election.
On the other hand, Bhumjai Thai’s momentum means it is far more ready to contest the next poll.
Anutin maintains that he wants to remain the noo (a mouse — his nickname in Thai) that supports the great lion. But his party has also been clear in its broadcasting that Anutin has a real shot at becoming prime minister. The mouse shows real potential at toppling the lion entirely.
Prayut’s challenges do not end there, however. Even leaving the issue of Bhumjai Thai aside, he is presiding over a cabinet marred by rivalrous relationships and internal instability.
His coalition partners have challenges. The Democrats and Bhumjai Thai are at loggerheads, clashing over Anutin’s signature marijuana policy which the Democrats clearly disapprove. Rumors abound of internal coup attempts within the Democrats. While unlikely, some even whisper that some in the party wish to see Jurin Laksanawisit replaced by the stridently anti-Prayut Abhisit Vejjajiva.
But that remains far-fetched. More important for Prayut is his deteriorating relationship with his deputy Prawit Wongsuwan, the leader of Palang Pracharath (PPRP). Make no mistake: comrade-in-arms they may still claim to be, but they are evidently in the process of a messy divorce.
It’s difficult to imagine a harmonious friendship, after all, when your erstwhile ally is busy welcoming a colorful array of your enemies into your coalition’s biggest party. In recent weeks, Prawit has brought in Mingkwan Sangsuwan, the former commerce minister who once loudly proclaimed his intense opposition to ever working with the party, only to now U-turn and say he is perfectly happy to be the prime ministerial candidate of a Prayut-less PPRP.
Prawit has also made big catches in Nipit Intharasombat (from the Saang Anakot Thai Party) and Anwar Salae (from the Democrats), both Southern stalwarts who are no friends of the prime minister. All of this, and we have yet to mention that Thammanat Promphao, a mortal foe of Prayut, could possibly return to the PPRP fold as well.
Even more crucially, Prayut and Prawit appear set to become rival candidates for the post of prime minister — a prospect that few would have imagined a few years ago.
When Prayut accepts, as he is widely expected to, the chairmanship of a ‘superboard’ of the Ruam Thai Saang Chat Party, he will become the figurehead of a rival party. And if the PPRP nominates Prawit for the premiership, a post for which deputy PPRP leader Paiboon Nititawan said Prawit is uniquely qualified because he is the most capable of assembling both MPs and unelected senators in his support.
The subtext: Prawit, with his capacity for dealmaking, including with the likely election winners Pheu Thai, has a far greater chance at securing the top post than the politics averse Prayut.
Of course, Prayut has also defied expectations time and time again. When the story of the Prayut premiership is written, once it is over, a key thread will be its sheer longevity. He survived an election, a rickety coalition, parliamentary games, and a court suspension.
And now, those who predicted that Prayut would wash his hands of the politics after one last opportunity to display global statesmanship at APEC were wrong. The cat with nine lives shows no sign of giving up.
But one can only wonder whether the prime minister used up his nine lives during this chaotic second term, only to be felled by his closest friend. Or if, to use another parable, he now instead risks being the cat in the story of the twelve zodiacs. In the traditional Chinese myth, the mouse pushed the cat into the river and raced ahead on an ox to become the first to reach the finish line.
One mouse may, indeed, find themselves in that position at the next general election.