Thai premier Prayut Chan-ocha has steered through the successful passing of a budget bill. But he has other political minefields to cross before his term in office ends in March 2023.
The Prayut Chan-ocha administration managed to pass a draft 2023 Budget Bill early Friday. This is a setback for Thailand’s parliamentary opposition. But it is only the first round for the embattled premier, who had prior to the passage of the bill been running into political headwinds.
In a much-needed victory for the premier, the House of Representatives accepted the bill on its first reading, with a vote of 278 to 194, with 2 abstentions. All government MPs voted for the bill, and some 30 opposition MPs even broke ranks to join the ruling coalition in supporting the bill. The latter included seven MPs from the chief opposition Phuea Thai Party and all 16 MPs belonging to the Thai Economic Party. The party is led by former government stalwart Captain Thammanat Prompao, who has recently been at odds with the prime minister.
Thammanat had joined several opposition leaders in claiming that the opposition would have more than enough votes to reject the bill. They had counted on luring dissidents from the ruling coalition, particularly restless MPs in small parties (six of them with only one MP each), either to vote against the bill or to abstain. But the government camp suffered no defections.
General Prayut did not take the passage of the Budget Bill for granted. This is understandable, given his wobbly political fortunes. The recent election for Bangkok governor saw the landslide victory of an independent who is still suspected of having links to the Phuea Thai Party. The outcome was a shot across the bow for the premier.
During the three-day debate on the bill, Prayut responded actively to criticisms and questions from opposition MPs. He promised to be flexible and reasonable in allocating funds among government agencies. He accepted creditable suggestions for further consideration. The prime minister, who normally avoids meeting with MPs, even found time on 1 June 2022 to meet with government MPs from smaller parties to seek their support for the bill.
General Prayut knew that the passage of the budget bill was a do-or-die proposition. If he had failed, he would have had to accept responsibility by either resigning or dissolving the House and calling an early general election. But he wants to host this year’s APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, scheduled in Bangkok from 18 to 19 November 2022, and to complete his four-year term as premier come March 2023.
In truth, the Budget Bill contains nothing out of the ordinary. The proposed total expenditure of 3,185 billion baht (about US$92.4 billion) represents an increase of only 2.7 per cent from the 2022 budget. Nearly 2,397 billion baht (US$69.5 billion), or about 75.3 per cent of expenditure, is for fixed regular expenses. About 695 billion baht (US$20.1 billion), or about 21.8 per cent, will go into investment spending. The rest will go toward servicing public debt. The proposed bill also allows for a deficit of 695 billion baht, to be covered by borrowing.
Several opposition leaders tried to dismiss the proposed budget as ‘hopeless’, ‘routine’, ‘full of corruption loopholes’ and ‘irrelevant’ at a time when Thailand is ‘sick’ from the Covid-19 pandemic and economic disruptions. One of them even compared the Prayut administration to a ‘beggar holding a birthday feast’, spending wastefully while the government’s public debt is piling up. This has risen from 9,830 billion baht (US$285 billion) or about 60.2 per cent of the GDP in 2021 from 6,900 billion baht or 41.0 per cent of the GDP in 2019.
Dismissing the government’s optimistic projection of GDP growth rate of 3.5 – 4.5 per cent in the next fiscal year, opposition MPs warned of a serious shortfall in government revenue collection. A more realistic growth projection is 3.0 per cent growth, given high fuel costs and rising inflation.
General Prayut’s future might have to depend on Captain Thammanat. Yet the position of Captain Thammanat and his party’s MPs remains unpredictable
Despite the win, General Prayut has other political minefields to cross. The next opportunity for Thailand’s parliamentary opposition to attempt to end General Prayut’s premiership will be in the no-confidence debate expected in mid-July. A loss in the no-confidence vote will immediately end his premiership.
At least two ministers will also be targeted along with General Prayut: Finance Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith and his deputy Dr Santi Promphat. The opposition will call attention to their allegedly unlawful roles in the tender for a massive 25 billion baht (US$725 million) water project in Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor. Following General Prayut’s urgent intervention in early May, the signing of the project concession agreement was abruptly postponed, pending a re-examination of the project in response to accusations of ‘irregularities’ in the controversial outcome of the bidding.
On paper, the ruling coalition of 15 parties has 250 MPs in the 476-member House, a dozen votes more than the minimum majority. It might also enjoy the support of some dissident opposition MPs, as in the vote to accept the draft budget bill.
General Prayut’s future might have to depend on Captain Thammanat. Yet the position of Captain Thammanat and his party’s MPs remains unpredictable. He formerly held the influential post of secretary-general of Phalang Pracharat, the largest government party. In a no-confidence debate last September, he tried but failed to mobilise defectors from the ruling coalition to join the opposition in voting against General Prayut.
For his treachery, Captain Thammanat, then holding the post of deputy minister of agriculture, was fired from the Prayut cabinet. And for his continuous scheming against General Prayut, Captain Thammanat was subsequently expelled from Phalang Pracharat.
From now until the upcoming no-confidence vote, the two opposing camps in the Thai parliament will have to maintain tight control over their respective members. Each camp will try to lure MPs from the other side to defect and join them.
For his part, General Prayut will also have to work harder to placate government MPs. This will not be easy. Government MPs, especially those in smaller parties, know that their votes are crucial to the premier’s political survival.
How well General Prayut can respond to the growing demands of government MPs will determine his fate in the upcoming no-confidence vote. In short, Round Two in General Prayut’s defence of his premiership will be more dramatic and breath-taking.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.