Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (C), Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul (L) and Yang Xin, ChargÈ d'Affaires of the Chinese embassy, stand beside a shipment of the CoronaVac Covid-19 vaccine, developed by China's Sinovac firm, after it arrived in Bangkok on 24 February, 2021. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA/ AFP)

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (C), Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul (L) and Yang Xin, Chargé d'Affaires of the Chinese embassy, stand beside a shipment of the CoronaVac Covid-19 vaccine, developed by China's Sinovac firm, after it arrived in Bangkok on 24 February, 2021. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA/ AFP)

Thailand’s Third Pandemic Wave: Felled by Infighting

Published

As the kingdom grapples with a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the political parties in the ruling coalition appear to be focused more on gaining political mileage than fighting the virus.

Although Thailand managed to control the spread of Covid-19 last year, this year has been a different story. The Prayut Chan-ocha government has failed to manage the country’s third wave of the outbreak, which hit the kingdom in April. This recent wave originated at entertainment venues in Bangkok and later spread across the country. In May, the new infections lingered at around 2,000-3,000 cases a day, with no improvement in sight as of early June. The month of May saw almost a thousand fatalities from the virus.

The failure to handle the new wave of the Covid-19 crisis is a result of the infighting among the organisations responsible for fighting the pandemic, as well as the government’s mismanagement of vaccine distribution. The infighting reflects a contest among elements of the Prayut government to use the Covid-19 crisis to gain support from the public in anticipation of approaching elections. 

Thailand has three major government organs responsible for managing the country’s pandemic response: the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH), and the Bangkok governor’s office. Ironically, the political personalities leading the three entities all hail from the same ruling coalition. The CCSA is led by the Prime Minister; the MOPH is led by Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the Bhumjaithai Party (BJTP) and the Public Health Minister; Mr Aswin Kwanmuang, the governor of Bangkok, was appointed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha. 

Mr Aswin has been cashing in on the pandemic for his personal political success. He will be running to retain his post in polls later this year. The prime minister and Mr Anutin also seem to have similar calculations in mind, as they anticipate the possibility of competing with each other in national elections in the not too distant future. Clashes between the Bangkok governor’s office and the MOPH over how to deal with the Covid-19 situation have also undermined the capital’s recovery. While the Bangkok governor preferred to focus on vaccinations at outbreak sites, the MOPH wanted to distribute vaccines to all areas equally.

The conflict among the coalition parties is likely to grow and become more intense in the coming months. Each party has attempted to use the Covid-19 crisis to gain political support in preparation for the next election which may happen any time.

A festering disagreement on vaccinations between the MOPH and CCSA has also led to confusion among Thais. Mr Anutin backed a walk-in vaccination policy in certain spots to reduce infection numbers and decrease the rate of fatalities. But the Prayut-led CCSA overturned the walk-in policy and advocated on-site registration. This would allow people to register in advance at specific sites. It is meant to prevent people from flocking to inoculation spots and becoming upset if there are not enough vaccines. The BJTP was unhappy with General Prayut’s decision. Later, two ministers from the BJTP, Mr Anutin and Minister of Transport Saksayam Chidchob, cooperated to set up a walk-in vaccination center at Bang Sue Grand Station in Bangkok. This constituted an act of clear defiance to the Prime Minister.

The conflicts between the coalition partners are not the only issue. Another slew of problems — the mishandling of vaccine policy, a lack of transparency, and a failure to secure options beyond the AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinovac vaccines — have all combined to exacerbate the Covid-19 situation. The government has delivered confusing messages concerning the availability of vaccines, which has frustrated the public. Within a month, the CCSA revised its vaccine distribution policy four times, including changing the process of vaccine registration, switching between walk-in vaccination and on-site registration, rescheduling starting dates to enroll for the jabs, and altering the application process to register for the vaccine online. The plan was for the general public to register for vaccines in early May, with inoculations to begin later in the month. In practice, however, many registration dates were postponed.

The conflict between CCSA and MOPH was clearly in view again during the first reading of a 3.1 trillion baht budget bill for the 2022 fiscal year last week. BJTP MPs criticised the government for cutting MOPH’s budget and reducing Mr Anutin’s authority to control the government’s Covid-19 response by centralising legal powers in General Prayut’s hands. BJTP MP Chada Thaiseth urged Mr Anutin to withdraw the party from the government coalition, which could spell the end of Prayut’s term in office. Currently, the BJTP holds 61 parliamentary seats. The Phalang Pracharat Party, the largest political party in the coalition, has 121 seats and the Democrat has 51 seats. Together, the three biggest political parties in the coalition control 233 seats. The two biggest opposition parties hold 188 in total, with the Phuea Thai Party having 134 seats and the Move Forward Party 54 seats.

The conflict among the coalition parties is likely to grow and become more intense in the coming months. Each party has attempted to use the Covid-19 crisis to gain political support in preparation for the next election which may happen any time. The infighting among government factions together with the mismanagement of Covid-19 also favour the opposition in their campaign against the parties in the ruling coalition. 

The BJTP has attempted to strengthen its party organisation and is seeking to attract a large number of MPs from other political parties. The Covid-19 crisis has also given the BJTP a chance to claim more credit for its success in fighting the pandemic by controlling policy implementation. If the BJTP can gain more seats in the next election, the party would have greater power to negotiate for more cabinet seats or even to name the prime minister. To the detriment of ordinary Thais affected by the current Covid-19 wave, the infighting within the coalition does not appear to be dissipating anytime soon.

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