The recent poll in Bangkok underscores the growing precarity of Thailand’s prime minister and his ruling coalition.
At the Bangkok elections held on Sunday, Thais voted in droves for an independent candidate. Chadchart Sitthipunt is not allied to any of the major political parties. That said, voters’ preference for the United States-trained civil engineer is a clear indicator that the political edifice built by the country’s ruling coalition is looking increasingly shaky.
Dr Chadchart bagged nearly 1.39 million votes, or a winning majority of about 51.2 per cent. He had left the Phuea Thai Party, the country’s biggest opposition party, in 2019. But many critics still wonder whether he has severed all ties to the party.
In a separate race for seats in the capital’s ruling council, voters elected 34 candidates from Phuea Thai (20 seats) and Move Forward (14 seats). This will enable the opposition to control the 50-member Bangkok Metropolitan Council (BMC).
In a stark contrast of fortunes, the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP) — the chief party in the ruling coalition at the national level — won two BMC seats. The Democrat Party, its coalition ally, did slightly better by winning nine BMC seats.
The Phalang Pracharat Party did not field a candidate in the Bangkok gubernatorial race. The Democrat Party’s candidate, Dr Suchatvee Suwansawat, came in second, beaten by Dr Chadchart by over one million votes. The incumbent Bangkok Governor, Police General Asawin Khwanmuang, fared even worse, coming in the fifth with slightly less than 215,000 votes. He is known to be an ally of Phalang Pracharat as well as PPP leader and deputy prime minister General Prawit Wongsuwan.
The electoral choices of voters in Bangkok, which is technically Thailand’s largest province, are important indicators for the rest of Thailand. In the next general election, Bangkok will also see an increase in the number of seats in the lower House of Representatives, from 30 to 33. Running a campaign in Bangkok is a monumental challenge, but electoral victories there are important in terms of prestige.
The outcome of the Bangkok elections is a rude wake-up call for General Prawit and his ‘beloved younger brother’ Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha. Both of them are facing an uphill struggle to stop the Phuea Thai Party — which is intimately linked to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — from engineering what it expects to be a ‘landslide victory’ in the next general election.
Thaksin has sent in his youngest daughter, Paetongtarn, to assume the role of ‘the head of the Phuea Thai family’. The 35-year old is new to Thai politics and heads the party’s participation and innovation committee. While she has not said as much, the businesswoman is likely to be one of the three nominees of the party for the premiership in the next general election.
Undoubtedly, another crucial mission for Paetongtarn is to bring her father home after more than 13 years in exile overseas. Thaksin fled Thailand to avoid potential jail terms and criminal cases, which he has claimed were all ‘politically motivated’ moves to remove him from Thai politics.
The outcome of the Bangkok elections is a rude wake-up call for General Prawit and his ‘beloved younger brother’ Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha.
Phuea Thai’s forward momentum is in stark contrast to the fortunes of the ruling coalition. Prime Minister General Prayut’s four-year term is due to end in late March 2023. His key supporter, General Prawit, has been talking about a potential dissolution of the House after the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Bangkok, set for 18-19 November. The plan is to hold an early general election soon after the event.
As things stand, neither the prime minister nor his influential deputy have any new selling points to capture public attention and voters’ support. The two generals were the prime movers in the 2014 coup. They seized power from the Phuea Thai-led coalition government with a promise to end corruption through political reforms in order to ‘return happiness to the Thai people as soon as possible’.
Eight years on, ‘happiness’ is in short supply. Corruption remains an endemic problem at all levels of government. Few political reforms have been instituted by General Prayut. Most Thais are not happier now compared to eight years ago.
In essence, the writing is on the wall for the ruling coalition. On Sunday, a majority of voters indicated a change in the country’s political order. They rejected the incumbent Bangkok governor, who was appointed by the coup leaders in 2016. They wanted opposition parties’ candidates to control the BMC, and to work with the new Bangkok governor.
This can create a knock-on effect to boost the popularity of the Phuea Thai Party and the Move Forward Party both in the Thai capital and nation-wide, much to the disadvantage of the Phalang Pracharat Party.
Without a party of his own, General Prayut is facing an increasingly untenable position. He seems to want to continue for another four-year term as premier, but he is still reluctant to take over the leadership of a party. His premiership is, therefore, precariously dependent on the support of major parties in the ruling coalition, and the 250 senators chosen three years ago when he was head of the military regime.
If the Phalang Pracharat Party does not do well in the next general election, then it would face difficulties in helping General Prayut secure another term of the premiership. Granted, most of the 250 unelected senators might support another term in power for General Prayut. But his next term would be doomed if the Phuea Thai Party and its allies manage to win a majority in the 500-member House of Representatives.
Under such a scenario, neither General Prayut nor any chosen successor will be able to pass any government-sponsored bill or overcome no-confidence motions initiated by the opposition.
For now, General Prayut needs to focus on near-term worries. He will soon face a no-confidence motion in the House. The Phuea Thai-led opposition has been preparing to introduce the motion to vote out General Prayut, as well as Deputy Finance Minister Santi Prompat, the secretary-general of Phalang Pracharat.
General Prayut’s political future is in the hands of all the major parties in the ruling coalition, parties whose weak standing in the eyes of Bangkok voters is now clear. Should he lose the no-confidence vote, few voters in the capital (or the nation, for that matter) would regret seeing him out of power after more than eight years.
Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Senior Fellow and Acting Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.