Thammanat versus Phalang Pracharat: Who Will Win?
Controversial Thai politician Thammanat Prompow is proving his mettle as an adept political fixer and could well emerge as kingmaker at the next elections.
Even before he was elected secretary-general of Thailand’s dominant government party Phalang Pracharat (PPRP) in June 2021, Thammanat Prompow had already emerged as an influential political fixer. The former Army officer with a controversial background has played a vital role in managing internal PPRP affairs and securing electoral victories in both national and sub-national polls. His role in the PPRP and Thai politics has gradually increased since the 2019 election, after which he helped orchestrate the formation of the ruling PPRP-led coalition government through negotiating with the Democrats and other parties.
In September 2021, however, Thammanat was dismissed from his post as deputy agriculture minister by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, following Thammanat’s instigation of a campaign to oust General Prayut during a parliamentary censure debate earlier that month. While the conflict between PM Prayut and Thammanat has subsequently become more intense, Thammanat – PPRP leader General Prawit Wongsuwan’s protégé – retains his position as an influential political middleman. In fact, Thammanat actually exercised his influence over the party when he convinced PPRP committee members and some members of parliament (MPs) to vote in favour of removing him and 20 MPs from his faction from the party on 19 January 2022. According to the 2017 Constitution of Thailand (Article 101 (9)), Thammanat and his 20 colleagues would be able to retain their MP status if three-fourths of the party’s executive committee members and MPs voted them out of the party. Having secured the needed votes for their own removal, Thammanat and his followers had to find a new party in no more than 30 days in order to maintain their MP status. Had they resigned from the party voluntarily, they would have immediately lost their parliamentary positions.
These events occurred shortly after the PPRP lost by-elections in Chumpon and Songkhla Provinces on 16 January 2022. The pro-Prayut factions of the party blamed the defeats on Thammanat’s demeaning speech during the campaign trail in Songkhla on 7 January 2022, where he said, ‘If the person does not have money, when he wants to help the people he would say “Sawatdi khrap, I do not have money”, will you want him!?’ This message was picked up by the PPRP’s rival, the Democrats, who used it to discredit the party, emphasising economic inequality in Thailand.
Therefore, Thammanat’s departure from the PPRP actually may not reflect political conflict among PPRP factions. Rather, it could reflect Prawit’s efforts to manage his power bases in order to prolong his political influence in preparation for Thailand’s next parliamentary elections.
Going forward, forming or joining a new political party will give Thammanat more power when negotiating for cabinet seats and other policy interests. Being outside the PPRP frees Thammanat from having to follow any instructions or policies of the PPRP. In theory, Thammanat would even be able to challenge Prayut’s government, particularly during a no-confidence debate. Prior to recent developments, the ruling coalition controlled 270 of 500 seats in parliament, and the opposition held around 203 seats. The departure of Thammanat’s faction members could potentially weaken Prayut’s position in the next no-confidence vote, which could be held during the March-June 2022 parliamentary session. Since the 2019 election, the prime minister has survived three no-confidence votes.
Thammanat and his ex-PPRP members joined the Thai Economy Party, but the party does not appear to be moving very far from PPRP leader General Prawit. General Patcharawat Wongsuwan, Prawit’s brother, will join the party as a political consultant, and General Vit Thephasdin Na Ayutthaya, the current head of the PPRP’s strategy committee, will serve as party leader. Therefore, Thammanat’s departure from the PPRP actually may not reflect political conflict among PPRP factions.
Rather, it could reflect Prawit’s efforts to manage his power bases in order to prolong his political influence in preparation for Thailand’s next parliamentary elections, expected later this year. That influence may even extend to installing a new premier to replace Prayut, perhaps even Prawit himself.
As a strong middleman, Thammanat has close connections with other political parties, the business sector, and local politicians. In an interview with the author, he stressed that he understood Thai politics as being based on patronage and political networks. To win an election, it is important in his view to control local politics, particularly at the provincial tier, as provincial politicians control their own political networks and vote canvassing teams. These networks can provide important support during general elections.
Thammanat’s connections to provincial-level politicians are evident in the composition of his following. Of the 20 MPs removed from the PPRP along with Thammanat, most are former members or chairs of provincial administration organizations, leading figures in their respective province’s politics. More importantly, 16 out of the 20 politicians are constituency MPs who dominate politics in their home provinces; only four are party-list MPs. Beyond these 20 colleagues, other MPs, particularly those from small parties holding single seats in parliament, are reportedly willing to support Thammanat in his machinations. If true, he will control at least 30 seats, a significant number for the government. Thus, the departure of the Thammanat faction from the PPRP signals the start of a new political game between him and Prime Minister Prayut. Although General Prawit seems to be able to control Thammanat at this point, this could change if Thammanat and his new party capture more seats in the next election. Thammanat and his party could have enough clout to act independently, rather than as conduits of Prawit’s political influence. This would position Thammanat nicely as the political kingmaker after the next election.
Punchada Sirivunnabood was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.