The Thai political process is now gearing up quite quickly with the Thai General Election date now formally set for the first time. Next week should see a clearer picture as to how the current Thai Prime Minister will pursue his political future. There are some indications that he may be a candidate for the new Palang Pracharat Party but other political commentators have pointed to the many options the Prime Minster has as the democratic process moves forward under Thailand’s new constitution for the first time.

As four Palang Pracharat cabinet ministers step down from the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha this week to begin campaigning for the March 24th election, the next week should see the Prime Minister’s relationship with that party clarified as the date for finalizing candidates approaches. The incumbent PM has many options and legal powers but he has said this week that he will only seek office through the political process. The formal confirmation of the election last week is good news for Thailand and it is hoped that the country will have a new parliament and government in place by the middle of the year following the coronation of Thailand’s monarch in early May.

Thailand’s election has now formally been confirmed for March 24th and this week saw four leading cabinet ministers resign to campaign for the pro junta Palang Pracharat Party. The last week has seen a lot of speculation about the future plans of the current Prime Minister and his chances of coming to power again after the election when the new Thai Parliament meets towards the middle of the year. Leading in some polls as a first choice among the Thai public for Prime Minister, the incumbent has many advantages over other aspirants for the job. Not least, his experience, support from the junta and legal powers as the current Prime Minister. General Prayut has however signaled to reporters this week that he wants to come to power through the political process. An indication of this path may come next week when parties, including Palang Pracharat, long associated with the PM, must finalize their official candidates for the office of Prime Minister.

Thailand is now only seven to eight weeks from a long awaited general election after Thailand’s election commission formally set the date late last week only hours after the royal decree was published by the government under the provisions of Thailand’s electoral law. The move has now been followed, this week, by the resignation of four key cabinet ministers in the current Thai government who are part of the new Palang Pracharat Party.

The party, formed to heal Thailand’s political divide and ostensibly to carry on the reforming work of the current government, is experiencing a mixed reaction from various opinion polls. The party is believed to be prepared to nominate the current Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha for the post of prime minister after the election but the Prime Minister has not yet fully committed his fortunes to the party. He has hinted at such a move and also said that he was looking closely at the manifestos of all the political groups vying for the public’s vote to the 500 seat Lower House of Parliament. Last week, the party nominated Somkid Jatusripitak, a Deputy Prime Minister, as one of their optional candidates for the position of Prime Minister. Under Thailand’s constitution, every party can nominate three candidates for the top job.

Prayut appears to envisage a political future or route to power after the Thai election

This week, following the resignations of the four Palang Pracharat Party cabinet ministers from his government, the Prime Minister ruled out a cabinet reshuffle and rejected suggestions and reports that he might use extraordinary powers he still retains to have himself appointed as Prime Minister after the March 24th poll. Thailand’s constitution, formally adopted in 2017 after a 2016 poll, allows an outside figure, unaligned with politics or political parties, to be voted into the office of prime minister. In the next election, the junta will still control the 250 member Upper House of Parliament or Senate. However, this week, the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha told the press that he would only seek to take office again as a political figure and as a candidate proposed by one of the political parties. A few political parties in Thailand, after politics was brought back to life last year, have already indicated support for the current Prime Minister continuing in office. ‘I will definitely not try to be an outsider prime minister,’ the Prime Minister said this week.

Former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra is still a powerful figure of influence in Thai politics

However, the cautious Prime Minister, despite tantalizing hints, has been very reticent so far to commit himself fully to the new Palang Pracharat Party. There has been a surge in support in the last two months for the former ruling Pheu Thai Party, the new Future Forward Party and the even newer Thai Raksa Chart Party which, like Pheu Thai, is strongly associated with former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The ex Premier has become more visible in Thailand himself in recent months through the canny use of social media even though he has been living in exile after being sentenced to a prison term by a Thai court for corruption. Thaksin fled the country while on bail in 2008.  The dynamic ex premier was ousted by the Thai army in a 2006 coup and has since been an ongoing force in Thai politics. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, led the last democratically elected Thai government, installed in 2011, but she was deposed following a court order in 2014 prior to the army coup which saw General Prayut come to power amid tumult on Thailand’s streets. Since then, the mercurial but popular leader has lead a stable government which has restored order in Thailand. He is the current favorite for the post of prime minister with a 26% popular vote in a simple first choice poll of potential candidates conducted in the last two large scale opinion polls.

Anxiety that Prime Minister and new party may be actually damaging each other politically

Even though it has been widely speculated that Palang Pracharat will support Prayut, there has been anxiety at the decidedly mixed reaction to the party in the opinions polls and controversies at some of the party’s election events. The party has been hugely successful at fundraising and is reported to be the choice of big business groups in Thailand and the urban elite. But even here there are contrary indications. Even though the party has some former political heavyweights and has had fundraising success, the traditional party of the elite in Thailand and the kingdom’s longest serving and oldest political party, the Democrat Party, led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has emerged as a very strong and revitalized force in this particular cycle of Thai politics. There are some commentators openly speculating that the proposed partnership of the Palang Pracharat Party and the incumbent Prime Minister is, at this stage, damaging to the interests of both parties to any proposed arrangement.

Resignation of cabinet ministers could be a prelude to announcement of Prayut as Prime Ministerial candidate for the party next week

The resignations this week of the four Palang Parcharat party signals the start of intensive campaigning for the March 24th election. The four ministers who resigned were the Minister for Industry Uttama Savanayana, Minister of Commerce, Sontirat Sontijirawong, Minister of Science and Technology Suvit Maesincee and Kobsak Pootrakool a Minister at the Prime Minister’s office. The four men explained to the Prime Minister that they needed to free up their time to campaign for the new party in the run up to March 24th. Through the media, they reminded the public that they had pledged to lay down their offices at the appropriate time and now was that time. Significantly, they pointed out that the period for registration of candidates was from February 4th to February 8th. This means that it should be clear by the end of next week who the party’s candidates for Prime Minister will be.

Formal election date is positive news for Thailand

The publication of the Royal Decree and speedy election date confirmation by the Election Commission is a very welcome move in Thailand and puts an end to opposition fears and tensions that had begun to surface over an ongoing poll delay. The Thai government has asked the public and those taking part in the election to work hard to keep an environment of peace and order in the country. A key priority and theme of this Thai government has been unity and reconciliation. The government said it was confident that Thai voters will have the opportunity to weigh and consider the policy platforms of all the parties. Indeed, there has been a wide ranging debate and policy initiatives announced already. They include radical proposals for reform of education, public transport and for a new, more advanced economy in Thailand. It is envisaged that Thailand will have a new parliament and a new government by the middle of this year.

Existing Thai government is not a caretaker administration – key election minister warns of the need for an orderly campaign

It is important to note that this current government retains it full powers to govern the country, set policy and control budgets right up the point where a new Prime Minister is announced and a new government policy is approved by the new parliament under very detailed constitutional terms. It is not a caretaker government. Government sources are emphasizing the need for an orderly, peaceful and respectful election campaign. The Deputy PM and key ministerial point man for liaising with the Election Commission is Wissanu Krea-ngarm. He has called for caution from all parties when it comes to electioneering and has warned that all parties will be monitored by officials working with Thailand’s powerful Election Commission.

Palang Pracharat leader hints that Prayut will be a Prime Ministerial candidate for the party

The key question now is whether Prayuth will emerge as a candidate for the Palang Pracharat Party next week when it finalises its candidates or whether he opts to remain aloof for now. There are indications he may go for it. Now former cabinet minister and Palang Pracharat Party leader, Uttama Savanayana, has said that the party would be proposing policies based on a continuation of the present government’s approach. This will include more infrastructure and targeted help to Thailand’s poor. ‘I can tell you that once our prime ministerial candidates are unveiled there would be a lot of cheering,’ he intriguingly told the media recently.

Pheu Thai, the governing political party in Thailand from 2011 to 2014  is still a strong political force

Meanwhile, the former ruling Pheu Thai Party is far from a spent force, in this political environment, despite losing many party members to new political offshoots. It’s Chief Strategist for the election is Sudarat Keyuraphan. The former government minister is also a favorite candidate for Prime Minister and is second in popular opinion polls to General Prayut Chan ocha, the current office holder. She led him in that poll, at one point, recently. The Pheu Thai Party will be fielding three Prime Ministerial candidates thought to be Khunying Sudarat, Mr Chadchart Sitthipant and the party leader, Pol Lt-Gen Viroj Pao-in.

Government appears to reject calls from the Pheu Thai Party to adopt a caretaker role

Although Pheu Thai is opposed to the junta and the current government, it has adopted a less aggressive stance than other, newer opposition parties and has quietly been formulating its policies and making election preparations. It is still Thailand’s most popular political party according to most opinion polls. In recent weeks, it has been calling on the current government to prioritize its role as a facilitator of the election and the process of returning the country to democracy. It has emphasized its view that the government must not use its position to attempt to influence the outcome. There have been a number of local squabbles and controversies where Pheu Thai members and officials have claimed to be the victims of unfair advantage been shown by government agencies to the Palang Pracharat Party. The party has also called on the current government to rein in its decision making and governmental powers, a request that appears to have been robustly rejected judging by recent statements from government ministers. They have made clear their intention to press on with their work for the country as an effective government.