Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaks during the handover ceremony at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok on November 19, 2022. (Photo: Jack TAYLOR / AFP)

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaks during the handover ceremony at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok on November 19, 2022. (Photo: Jack TAYLOR / AFP)

Thai PM’s New Move Raises More Questions Than Answers

Published

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has finally announced his intention to be the prime ministerial candidate of the United Thai Nation Party. Many questions remain, however, about how he intends to proceed in the run-up to the next general elections.

On 23 December, Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha suddenly announced his intention to accept the nomination of the United Thai Nation Party (UTN) to be its candidate for the premiership in the next general election. But the long-anticipated decision has raised more questions than answers.

Three days earlier, General Prayut had appointed Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, UTN party leader, as his secretary-general. The influential post is known in the Thai media as the “mini-prime minister” (นายกน้อย Nayok-noi). The holder of the post is the “gatekeeper” of cabinet meetings, schedules and appointments of the prime minister. Installing Pirapan in such a post is yet another calculated step on General Prayut’s part to retain the premiership.

However, some questions remain: In what capacity will General Prayut join the UTN? Will he put his name on the party’s list for a seat in the House of Representatives? And most important of all, would he dissolve the House and call an early general election? If yes, when will he do so?

What is certain now is that General Prayut has broken ranks with his “Big Brother”, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan. The latter is the leader of Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the largest party in the ruling coalition. The party successfully nominated General Prayut as its candidate for the premiership in the 2019 general election. But now the PPRP wants to nominate General Prawit for the premiership.

What remains uncertain is whether General Prayut will dissolve the House and call for an early general election. General Prayut’s popularity in recent polls has improved slightly, but he is still trailing far behind Pheu Thai Party’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of exiled former prime minister Thaksin. 

The break-up opened the door for the sudden return to the PPRP of former Deputy Agriculture Minister Captain Thammanat Prompao. When he was secretary-general of the PPRP, Thammanat schemed with some opposition parties to try to oust General Prayut in the no-confidence debate held in early September 2021. General prevailed in the no-confidence vote. He fired Thammanat from his cabinet, and the latter declared himself to be an “independent opposition”.

General Prayut has apparently learned several lessons from Thammanat’s attempted revolt. He cannot rely on the goodwill of General Prawit to protect him. Neither can he count on the support of the PPRP in the House. After all, his “Big Brother” did not try to stop Thammanat’s backstabbing. Several PPRP MPs apparently colluded with Thammanat.

General Prayut now seems to realise that he needs his own party to return to the premiership after the next general election.

In this context, the UTN has emerged as an option for General Prayut. It is headed by Pirapan, who is also an advisor to the prime minister. The UTN’s professed primary mission is to support General Prayut’s return to power.

So far, General Prayut has kept mum about his plans in the UTN. Some analysts speculate that he will become the “chief strategist” of the UTN, and let Pirapan continue as the party leader. This entails a huge advantage: a “chief strategist” who is not on the executive committee will not be banned from politics if the party is dissolved for some criminal wrongdoings.

Each party can name up to three candidates for the premiership. Another candidate of the UTN could be Pirapan, who is a veteran politician with close personal ties to ex-army chief General Apirat Kongsompong (now a deputy head of the Royal Household Bureau).

What remains uncertain is whether General Prayut will dissolve the House and call for an early general election. General Prayut’s popularity in recent polls has improved slightly, but he is still trailing far behind Pheu Thai Party’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of exiled former prime minister Thaksin.  

But General Prayut would not want to dissolve the House too soon. The current House will complete its four-year term on 23 March 2023. The next general election is officially scheduled for 7 May 2023.

He would not likely dissolve the House now. The King’s eldest daughter, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, remains in intensive care after suffering a stroke on 14 December. General Prayut will not want to inject any political instability for the King and the royal family.

He is unlikely to dissolve the legislature before two proposed bills — amendments to the political party law and the election law — have been signed by the King and promulgated into new legislation. This is expected to happen this month.

The next general election will see the number of direct election House seats increase from 350 to 400, and the number of party-list House seats decrease from 150 to 100. The amended laws will benefit large and well-funded parties which can field competitive candidates in all 400 constituencies. The popular votes won by these large parties will bag them a large share of the 100 party-list House seats.

More questions will emerge as and when General Prayut dissolves the House and calls an early general election: Will he put his name on the party’s list for a House seat? He may not want to be a party-list MP to avoid attending tedious House meetings. The Constitution of 2017 does not require a prime minister to be concurrently an MP.

More importantly, will his new and untested party win enough House seats to be the core and leader of a new ruling coalition? A party wanting to put its premiership candidate in the selection race after the general election needs to win at least 25 of the 500 House seats.

Will General Prayut get enough support from MPs from other parties and senators to win the premiership? And even if he wins, what will happen when he reaches the 8-year constitutional limit for the premiership in mid-2024? Who will succeed him?

As things go, the only certainty now is that Thai politics is becoming more intriguing and confusing than before.

2023/07

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.