The recent no-confidence vote by the opposition in Thailand’s parliament shows that the ruling coalition is being riled by internal conflict.
On 25 January 2021, eight opposition parties with 208 parliamentarians filed a motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand and other nine ministers, including deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwon, commerce minister Jurin Laksanawisit and education minister Nataphol Teepsuwan. The ministers hail from three coalition parties: the Phalang Pracharat (PPRP), Democrat and Bhumjaithai. The no-confidence debate was held from 16 to 19 February.
The prime minister together with those nine ministers survived a no-confidence vote in parliament. The former secured 272 votes, two less than his deputy Prawit. Thailand’s parliament is comprised of 487 legislators, with 277 ruling coalition and 210 opposition members. The censure motion would have required a simple majority, or 244 votes, to pass. While it was not surprising that the government survived the vote for the no-confidence motion as it did in February 2020, the result indicates internal conflicts within the coalition government and with opposition parties.
In the case of the coalition government, six members of parliament (MPs) from the so-called Dao Reuk (stars) faction from the PPRP abstained from voting for Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob of the coalition’s Bhumjaithai Party. Saksayam received only 268 votes of confidence while Anuthin Charnvirakul, the Bhumjaithai leader, gained 275 votes. The Dao Reuk MPs claimed that Saksayam had failed to respond to allegations of irregularity in a mass transit mega-project. The leader of the Dao Reuk faction insisted that the group had the right to freedom of expression in a democratic system. Bhumjaithai leaders have pressured the PPRP to take action on this issue. The PPRP will set up a committee to investigate this matter and possibly penalise the six rebels. House Speaker Chuan Leekpai, however, has warned parties that MPs have their right to vote according to the Constitution. To penalise MPs due to external pressures may lead to party dissolution in which parties let outsiders influence its internal management.
While it was not surprising that the government survived the vote for the no-confidence motion as it did in February 2020, the result indicates internal conflicts within the coalition government and with opposition parties.
Nataphol Teepsuwan – the education minister and listed as the PPRP’s No.1 party list candidate in the 2019 election – suffered the ignominy of bagging the lowest number of votes. He retained the support of only 258 lawmakers, while 215 voted against him. This shows that the PPRP is riven by internal conflicts. Nataphol’s failure to tackle issues related to educational improvement together with the accusation that he supports his wife Taya – a former deputy Bangkok governor – to run in the widely anticipated but not yet scheduled gubernatorial contest in the capital has infuriated Nataphol’s party colleagues. PPRP members who are loyal to General Prawit prefer former police chief Chakthip Chaijinda in the Bangkok Governor election. Many of Nathaphol’s colleagues, therefore, passed on information about him to the opposition and did not vote to support him. Nataphol’s problems have been compounded more recently. On 24 February, the Criminal Court found Nataphol and his wife, Taya, together with 26 members of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) guilty of sedition for taking part in 2014 violent protests against Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. Nataphol and another two ministers were immediately disqualified from their cabinet posts as a result of the ruling.
The no-confidence vote has also underscored the rebound of deputy agriculture minister Thammanat Prompow from the previous censure debate in 2020, where he came last in the confidence vote with 269 votes. In the 2020 debate, the opposition had publicised documents showing that Thammanat – who has close links to Prawit – was imprisoned in Australia in the 1990s due to his conviction of smuggling heroin into that country. This year, however, he gained 274 votes with 199 voting against him due to his close relationship with MPs both in the coalition and some small opposition parties. His votes suggest that some opposition MPs either abstained or even voted to support him. The success of Thammanat this year will secure his ministerial seat in the next cabinet reshuffle and ensure his power in the coalition government.
Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit, who is also the leader of the Democrat Party, received 268 confidence votes and 207 against. Jurin’s performance as commerce minister has been far from impressive, as he has failed to proactively promote policies to boost the country’s economy. His popularity within his party is also on the decline after a disastrous performance in the last general election; three Democrat MPs abstained from voting to support him during the censure debate. Jurin is thus facing both internal and external threats. These challenges may endanger Jurin’s ministerial post during the next cabinet reshuffle. The PPRP reportedly wants to reclaim the Commerce Ministry, as it is one of the key economic portfolios.
Not only did MPs from the coalition government vote against their party resolution, four MPs from the opposition’s Move Forward Party (the successor of Future Forward Party) did not vote along the party line by supporting two ministers from the coalition party Bhumjaithai. One of the four MPs even conceded that he was impressed by Anuthin, the Bhumjaithai leader, after accepting his invitation to visit the northern province during the pandemic. This MP may defect to Bhumjaithai in the next election.
The vote splits among MPs both from government and opposition parties shows that there are internal conflicts within Thailand political parties and the ruling coalition proper. In a future cabinet reshuffle, ministers who had received a lower number of votes will face challenges in retaining their posts. The cabinet reshuffle is expected within the next month to fill the vacant cabinet post due to the court’s ruling. The Court judgment will actually lend a hand to Prayut in the reshuffle. Any replacements or removal of ministers can be done coolly and rationally, without the need for any sentiment. This, after all, is the business of Thai politics.
Punchada Sirivunnabood was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.