The Thai prime minister might soon leave the ruling Phalang Pracharat Party-led governing coalition. Ironically, his departure might actually boost the party's chances of assembling a winning coalition come the elections expected next year.
In the run-up to the Thai general elections, which are expected to be held no later than the first quarter of 2022, many political parties — including the Phuea Thai Party, Democrat Party and Move Forward Party — have adapted social media and technology in a bid to amass votes. This does not apply to the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPRP). The pro-military party is applying a different kind of innovation: preserving and updating old-style factionalism to control Thailand’s political landscape.
In September 2021, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha survived his third no-confidence vote, along with five of his ministers. Subsequently, the media spotlight has moved from the conflict between the prime minister and Colonel Thammanat Prompow, the PPRP’s secretary-general and Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, to the widening breach between the premier and PPRP leader General Prawit Wongsuwan. In September, Prayut dismissed two of Prawit’s protégés, Thammanat and Narumon Pinyosinwat, the Deputy Minister of Labour, from the Cabinet. This was in response to Thammanat’s role in instigating a campaign to oust General Prayut during a censure debate. With General Prawit’s support, however, Thammanat has retained his position as PPRP secretary-general.
Some analysts said the incident signals tension between General Prawit and Prime Minister Prayut, even though the latter asserts that their relationship remains strong. The rift between the two PPRP leaders was apparent during their visits to the provinces in mid-September. While 55 MPs joined General Prawit as he toured Ayutthaya province, only nine MPs, all of them from the area and surrounding provinces, accompanied the PM in Phetchaburi province. Some observers expect that the rift will push Prayut to leave the PPRP and set up a new political party. Does this situation suggest conflict between the two generals? Probably not. Despite their different visions about the power arrangements within the PPRP and their inclinations to head in separate directions, Prayut and Prawit remain united in pursuit of a common goal of maintaining power at the head of a ruling coalition.
It appears that Prawit has already mapped out a path to victory, no matter what Prayut does. If Prayut were to take his allies to a new party, Prawit would still retain control of the PPRP. He will also continue to maintain the loyalty of many of Prayut’s allies. Even if the new pro-military party is established, it will not threaten PPRP’s political stability.
Establishing a new pro-military party would actually play into Prawit’s hands. In fact, the new party would serve as part of his divide-and-rule strategy. The PPRP controls over 20 factions. After the 2019 election, there has been intra-factional infighting. Paradoxically, the departure of Prayut’s factions to the new party may actually lessen internal conflict and boost the PPRP’s chances of forming the next coalition government come the next election.
The emergence of the divide-and-rule strategy means that for the first time in Thai political history, two pro-military parties would be entering the race for parliamentary seats.
The new military-linked party, Setthakit Thai (Thai Economic Party), will be reportedly led by the recently-retired Permanent Secretary of the Interior Ministry, Chatchai Promlert. Widely known as ‘Big Chieng’, Chatchai is closely connected to the former leaders of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military-linked group which took power in the May 2014 coup. Chatchai is particularly close to General Anupong Paochinda, the former commander-in-chief of the Army and the Minister of the Interior. As a former Interior Ministry Permanent Secretary, he is expected to help the PPRP and its allied parties win seats in the next general election. Based on his longtime experience at the ministry, he will also play an important role in the November 2021 sub-district elections. There are even rumours that Chatchai could replace Prayut and lead a new generation of the pro-military clique to prolong the military’s political influence. If this party is formed, General Prayut may join it together with other PPRP factions, such as the Southern and Three Friends factions. The new party would nominate Prayut as its PM candidate, leaving Prawit the humdrum task of managing the various factions within the PPRP.
Prawit has not sat on his hands even as Prayut makes plans for the new military-backed party. He has appointed General Vit Thephasdin Na Ayutthaya as the head of the PPRP strategic committee. Gen Vit has been working in the PPRP backroom. Gen Prawit promoted him to leverage on his linkages to business and military networks. In the run-up to the elections, he will help General Prawit deal with PPRP factions in order to lessen intra-party conflict. More importantly, General Vit could function as the glue adhering the vast military cliques within the PPRP. He is close to PM Prayut, General Anupong and Thammanat. This would help lessen the tension between Thammanat and the two generals, Prayut and Anupong.
The emergence of the divide-and-rule strategy means that for the first time in Thai political history, two pro-military parties would be entering the race for parliamentary seats. Some analysts argue that the formation of a new pro-military party underscores the conflict among former NCPO leaders. This might be true, but the new party is also part of a sublime strategy that Gen Prawit is pursuing to manage intra-party conflict and garner more party-list seats in the new electoral system. The three musketeers of the former NCPO — Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit and Gen Anupong — are still united, but in a different manner. To invert the Chinese proverb: this could well be a situation of different beds, same dream.
The key question here: who will be nominated as the new PM after the election? To Prawit, this might not be the most important question. Whoever becomes the next premier, Prawit will be controlling all the levers of power. With the divide-and-rule strategy, he has already won and become a real ‘Big Brother’ in the Thai political landscape.
Punchada Sirivunnabood was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.